Hedge-Fund Chief Plans Sparkling Wine in U.K. Vineyard

Mark Driver
Rathfinny vineyard owner Mark Driver formerly worked in finance. He says that watching grapes grow is less stressful than watching the markets on computer screens. Source: Mission via Bloomberg

Mark Driver, who worked for banks in London and Hong Kong before helping found a hedge fund, yesterday began planting vines on the coast of England where he aims to produce sparkling wine to match France’s finest.

Rathfinny, on the South Downs, will grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Riesling grapes in chalky soil similar to that of the Champagne region. The plan is to expand to about 400 acres (162 hectares) by 2020, making it the U.K.’s largest.

“Why sit in front of a computer screen for the rest of your life watching prices go up and down when watching grapes grow is so much less stressful?” Driver said yesterday in an interview at Rathfinny, where the sound is of seagulls and you need to walk up a hill to get a signal on your BlackBerry.

Driver worked at Fidelity before joining County NatWest in Hong Kong. His also worked at Crosby Securities, Merrill Lynch & Co. and Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. He was a founding partner in Horseman Capital Management, which he said had $6 billion under management at its peak. Horseman’s total assets under management were more than $774 million as of Feb. 29 this year, according to the company’s website.

He paid about 3.5 million pounds ($5.6 million) for the land at Rathfinny in 2010. The farm covers a total of 600 acres, not all of which are suitable for planting. He may make small quantities of wine next year, with the first sparklers scheduled to be distributed in 2016 or 2017.

Investment Plan

“I’ve always loved wine but this is a commercial operation, not a vanity project,” Driver said. He declined to disclose his total investment, saying only that he expected the business to become profitable on a cash-flow basis in 2017 and that he hoped to start repaying some of the investment in 2020.

The main markets are likely to be the U.K., North America and Asia, Driver said. (He will produce also a small quantity of still wines.) He said he expects to harvest between 20 and 50 metric tons of grapes next year, depending on the weather, a ton equating to about 1,000 bottles. Longer term, the goal is to make almost 1 million bottles a year.

Driver, 47, said he expects the sparkling wine to retail for between 25 pounds and 28 pounds a bottle.

(Demand for English sparkling wine is growing, according to Mark Cesareo, manager of the Gilbert Scott restaurant, where he was formerly sommelier. Cesareo said that combined sales by the glass exceeded those of the house champagne and that he had contacted Driver to express an interest in trying Rathfinny’s wines.

Sparkling Future

“The future for England lies in sparkling wines: That’s where the exciting stuff is coming,” Cesareo said. “Nyetimber has produced good-quality wines for some time and that consistency is important.”)

The vineyard lies on the same band of chalk that forms the Paris Basin, which stretches across the Champagne region. Global warming has significantly improved English wines, Driver said.

Denbies Wine Estate, set in 265 acres, is currently home to the largest single vineyard in the U.K. (Wine is produced in Wales as well as England.) Sales of U.K. wine by value in 2011 jumped 45 percent from a year earlier to 26 million pounds, according to Nielsen market research.

The winemaker at Rathfinny is Jonathan Medard, a Frenchman from Epernay who trained at Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Champagne Louis Roederer, Moet & Chandon and Champagne Boizel. He moved to Rathfinny from California, where he was vice president of winemaking for Conway Family Wines.

Cameron Roucher, the vineyard manager, is a New Zealander who previously managed the Two Gates Vineyard in Hawkes Bay, where he was a member of the Dolbel Estate team.

Information: http://www.rathfinnyestate.com/

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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