Raise a glass: Sarah Driver

This year, leading English wine producer Rathfinny is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Here its founder shares what she’s learned, how the brand is celebrating, and plans for the future

People 31 Jul 2020

Rathfinny founder Sarah Driver

Rathfinny founder Sarah Driver

Sarah Driver set up Rathfinny in 2010 with her husband Mark. The couple left successful careers in the City to start producing sparkling wine from one of the country’s largest estates on the South Downs in Sussex. Sarah spoke to Brummell about how Rathfinny is celebrating its 10th anniversary, the new Classic Cuvée and the experience of building a wine brand from scratch.

It feels fabulous to be celebrating the 10th anniversary of Rathfinny. I cannot believe it’s gone so quickly. When I look back, I can’t believe we took this arable farm that had the equivalent of one and a half employees, and we now have nearly 300 acres under vine and employ more than 30 full-time staff. We have world-class wine selling internationally and in the best restaurants in the country and we’ve got an amazing tourism offer. Sometimes I think: ‘Oh my gosh, how did we do that?’ But it’s completely a team effort.

I think the greatest achievement of the past 10 years is having started Rathfinny from scratch, and having created a worldwide brand that makes world-class sparkling wine. That’s a huge achievement, of which I’m extremely proud, but for me, it always comes back to people. And I think the thing I’m proudest of is the people we work with. We have a very low turnover of staff and we’ve built an amazing team who are with us every step of the way.

A perfect option for social distancing, Rathfinny offers sumptuous picnics on the estate
A perfect option for social distancing, Rathfinny offers sumptuous picnics on the estate

We have a new Classic Cuvée, which is one of the ways we are marking the anniversary. The launch means we now have our full range of wines: a Blancs de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, Rosé, and now our Classic Cuvée. We are exceptionally proud of it because, and I know I’m biased, but it is a really delicious wine. Its price point is accessible at £29.50. I feel really strongly that I want people to taste fabulous English sparkling wine. We celebrated in a slightly different way because we had to delay our launch party at the Ham Yard hotel. Instead we did virtual tastings from our kitchen and those were incredible because we got in front of about 18 of the top wine critics in the country in groups of four and spent a good hour with each of them.

It was just at the right time – people weren’t over Zooms yet. Everyone was quite happy to see other people and it kind of felt like we were all in it together. We got some great responses. We had Will Lyons in the The Sunday Times calling it decadent and world class. Susy Atkins made our rosé the star buy in The Telegraph. Tom Stevenson, who wrote The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia called our Classic Cuvée a brilliant wine; you can’t get better feedback. It was just lovely to be able to share really positive news with everybody when there have been a lot of bad things happening in the world.

I strongly believe that we have to think of sparkling wine as a wine, and it pairs fantastically with food. The Rathfinny Classic Cuvée goes wonderfully with seafood, or a lovely fish pie. I’d have it with a roast dinner and I’d certainly have it with apple pie or poached pears as a pudding. Even cheese and biscuits – it really goes well with the brioche taste of sparkling wine.

Rathfinny Classic Cuvée
Rathfinny Classic Cuvée 2016

We’ve learned a lot over the past 10 years, and I’ve distilled it into four main lessons. Firstly, it’s important to stay very focused on your core business and budgets. When you start something new, you have a lot of ideas and you have to learn to sift through them.

Secondly, I really believe in the importance of systems and processes. They do develop organically, but they’re super important. I think we were strong in our systems and processes and that’s really shown during Covid, it’s something I’m proud of.

Thirdly, you have to look after your relationships. I’ve always placed a high price on working well with people: caring and being honest. And I think it’s really paid off because we’ve got a great relationship with our staff and they’ve been totally behind us through this difficult time. We also have a great relationship with our community locally. And I think they feel incredibly proud of what we’ve done, what Sussex has managed to do. And we have great relationships with our trade customers and made sure to keep in touch through lockdown.

The fourth lesson is one I’ve learned on a personal level, which is something I think a lot of women will relate to: finding a work/life balance. I’ve recently gone part time, three days a week, and I’m very strict now about weekends and holidays.

The Seafood Kitchen at Rathfinny offers takeaway to be enjoyed by the vines
The Seafood Kitchen at Rathfinny offers takeaway to be enjoyed by the vines

When we started Rathfinny, our story was always reported as ‘Mark Driver, ex-City hedge fund manager starts vineyard’. And I think we’d been working probably for about two years when my daughters said to me: ‘Mum, why is it that you work as hard as dad, the business has half your money and investment but they only talk about him?’ It hasn’t occurred to me because I was very slow to want to be in the limelight but I did ring our PR agency to say that I don’t want another article to go out that just talked about Mark Driver. No one has ever said ‘Sarah Driver, ex City solicitor starts vineyard’ and I’ve always picked up journalists nicely, but I have challenged it repeatedly. Having said that as an industry, I think the wine world is pretty well balanced between men and women though there’s still a way to go. Plumpton College, where everybody in this country goes to learn about the wine industry is producing some amazing women wine makers and cellar hands. There are also women in really important positions such as Elizabeth Newman, the head wine buyer at Sainsbury’s, for example, and Jancis Robinson, who is probably the world’s most famous wine critic.

In 10 more years, I hope we’ll be making a profit – we are nearly there, even though we’ve had this thump with Covid-19. Tourism in Sussex is amazing and I’d like to see us become a global destination. Sussex Modern, for example, is an initiative we’re involved in that is a collaboration between Sussex vineyards and wineries and the fantastic art institutions in the area including Charleston House, Towner Gallery, Ditchling Museum, Glynebourne, and the De La Warr museum. On the website you can plot yourself a day out that includes a wine tour, lunch and a visit to a gallery. I’d like to see 50 per cent of our wine sold overseas. At the moment we’re exporting to Hong Kong, we just started exporting to Norway and we’re hoping to be going to Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan and the US. We were going into American next year, but we put that on hold for the moment for obvious reasons. And I’d like us be sold across the whole of Great Britain.

Perceptions of English sparkling wine have definitely changed over the past 10 years. Although my husband Mark heard a comedian making fun of English wine on Radio 4 just other day. There is still is an element of that. The reason we started on this journey was because when Mark was helping one of our daughters apply to university, he saw a course at Plumpton on winemaking and wondered why it was being offered. That lead him to start researching the topic and then for one of my birthdays he bought 12 bottles of wine, English and French, and we did a blind tasting with our friends. The English all came out at the top and on the basis of that, we decided to start a vineyard. Back then if people knew something, they knew the English are good at making wine and we’re beating the French at getting awards. Now the industry has grown so that English sparkling wine in good restaurants is a category in its own, and some go even further and have Sussex as a category in its own right. It’s fantastic to see.

Rathfinny Classic Cuvée, £29.50; rathfinnyestate.com