We met Sarah 10 years ago when she and her husband, Mark, had recently bought 600 acres of land in Sussex to build and create their own vineyard, which they called Rathfinny. How are they doing 10 years on?
You might think that sustainability involves planning a few years ahead or, at best, decades in the future. But, for Sarah and Rathfinny’s vineyard manager, Cameron Roucher, they are planning for what the land will look like 100 years hence.
That is, in part, because they are currently in the process of applying for B Corp accreditation, which of necessity means looking well into the future. Becoming a B Corp company is an acknowledgment that the company operates to the very highest environmental standards. And not just being environmentally responsible, the B Corp stamp of approval also involves governance, how you manage the company, care for workers, social responsibility, and engagement with your customers and the local community.
On all those fronts, Rathfinny passes with shining colours, although, as Sarah says, it is by no means a shoo-in obtaining the B Corp mark. “When we started at Rathfinny, we always wanted to create an operation that was fully sustainable and was integrated into the local community. We set about using locally sourced materials, hired local people, started a local shop, opened public rights of way, and much more besides. But one of the issues for B Corp requires a before and after, and to demonstrate measurable differences. That has required a lot of explanation and justification, because for many things we’ve done them right from the start!”
It is worth the effort, she continues. “We started the B Corp journey in 2020 to be part of a new wave of businesses that balance purpose and profit. We are legally required to consider the impact of every decision we make on society and the environment. For us, it is absolutely the right thing to do.”
Not that Sarah, who was with Herbert Smith Freehills from 1985 to 1990, is fazed by the process. The pandemic has slowed things down, but she is hopeful that they will get the accreditation.
They can certainly show several key changes. Rathfinny has invested in the only cold stabilisation machine in the country, which uses electrodialysis to remove the chances of tartaric acid crystals forming in the wine and it reduces energy costs by some 90 per cent. They are almost self-sufficient in electricity, having partnered with a not-for-profit solar enterprise, installing solar panels, sending zero waste to landfill and installing a large composter for all food waste. The resulting compost goes back on the vines.
What makes Rathfinny unusual, apart from being one of the largest vineyards in the UK, is that they do everything on one site. They grow the grapes (on some 380,000 vines on 250 acres), make the wine in their own giant tanks, have their own bottling production plant and store the wine in their own temperature-controlled cellars.
Rathfinny now produces four of its own “Hero” wines that are sold to upmarket hotels and restaurants. As well as to the UK, Rathfinny wines are now sold to Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Hong Kong and Korea and they have just signed distribution deals with Japan, China and Canada.
It is a huge operation. There are 45 full-time staff, 45 more who work for several months a year and some 200 casual workers who do the picking during the autumn. Rathfinny is also well visited, offering tours and tasting sessions and a Tasting Room restaurant featured in the Michelin Guide. They welcomed 60,000 visitors last year.
Rathfinny is receiving plaudits locally for its contribution to the local community, winning from Best International Company and Best Overall Business of the Year from the Eastbourne Business Awards. Meanwhile, the converted Flint Barns has won a heritage award for their use of recycled flint and wood. Here, guests can stay in one of the 10 en-suite bedrooms and eat in the Flint Barns restaurant which serves evening meals, seasonal dining experiences and notorious Sunday lunches.
They are hooking up with other local vineyards as part of the Sussex Modern initiative, which combines local art, the shared landscape and local wine as a way to attract to tourists.
Further acknowledgment came in the form of PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) recognition for Sussex wine, which guarantees that any bottle that is stamped “Sussex” on the label meets a very high standard.
There have, of course, been challenges. The pandemic and lockdown led to two lost Christmases as hospitality outlets suffered. This past Christmas, likewise, with the trains strikes. However, lockdown also led to greater interest among wine critics, all of whom could easily join Zoom calls. The response has been universally encouraging. “We have really been able to develop good relationships with the wine critics,” Sarah says.
There are further challenges ahead, not least the continuing war in Ukraine, which is affecting the supply of glass, among other things. Two of the world’s largest glass manufacturers are in Ukraine. Glass has more than doubled in price. The cost of living crisis is having a direct impact on hospitality. Nonetheless, Sarah is optimistic about the future, but first she has to get those B Corp forms in.
* Rathfinny is generously offering a 10% discount on its wines for Herbert Smith Freehills alumni. The offer is valid between 27th February 2023 and 30th April 2023. When ordering, use the code TASTEOFSUSSEX