Country View 2020: Branching Out

Below is an abridged interview from Country View 2020 with Simon  Robinson, Founder of Hattingley Valley winery, British land diversification success story. Read the full interview in Country View 2020, Knight Frank’s definitive guide to the finest country property from across the UK, on p. 6. 

In 1999, Kings Farm in Hampshire was a fairly humble agricultural proposition, making unspectacular returns. Fast-forward 20 years and the farm is home to the Hattingley Valley winery, an especially successful British sparkling wine brand that’s capable of producing 250,000 bottles a year. The man behind the venture is former City lawyer Simon Robinson, who embraced the rapidly rising trend of diversification.

In recent years, estate owners of all sizes have repurposed their land – and property within it – for a variety of reasons, many of whom are creating business opportunities removed from their intended agricultural use, such as creating short-let holiday rentals or spaces for activity retreats.

A 2017 survey by the Department of Environment found that two-thirds of UK farms had diversified into non-agricultural business, making a total of £620million in the process. Embarking on a new scheme, however, can be complex, costly and time-consuming.

Using land for the growth of grape-bearing vine is one form of diversification that has become increasingly popular. And while wine production is not new to the UK – according to WineGB there are now more than 10,000 acres of vines being cultivated by 522 commercial vineyards – production is growingly rapidly, with output rising from the equivalent of 6.3 million bottles in 2014 to almost 16 million in 2018.

“Back in 1999, returns from farming were pretty unexciting and we wanted to do something a bit different,” explains Robinson. As someone with an interest in wine, and with the benefit of the right soil in southern England, it soon became clear in which direction Robinson would go.

“The reputation of English wine was being transformed by new producers of sparkling wine, who were planting classic Champagne varieties of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier and were making wines in the same way as in Champagne,” he says. “To add insight, the soil type in parts of southern England is identical to that of France, and unsurprisingly, the resulting product from grapes grown here is as excellent as that of Champagne.”

One common issue with diversifying business is the demands on time it can produce, but Robinson found the initial stages quite compatible with his schedule. “It was easier earlier on as things progressed on an agricultural timetable, so reviewing progress weekly was entirely viable,” he explains. “It became much harder when we started selling our wine.”

Given these restraints, any ambitious client needs honest, insightful stewardship throughout the acquisition process, something both Robinson and Edward Dixon, the joint head of Knight Frank’s Rural Asset Management (RuAM) team, believe is absolutely paramount.

“We take them through from buying to setting up enterprises,” says Dixon. “We might run the estate or farm they’ve bought as it is – we take it on and often don’t make too many drastic changes in the first 12 months. It’s a chance to get to know the property, understanding what the assets are, and gives us a chance to review and explore the various opportunities that they might be interested in.

“We can guide them and help them with business plans and support. But if they’re hands-off owners and not around as much then we pick up the slack and do the whole management.”

Read the full interview in Country View 2020, p. 6.