We were refugees for 2 months. The day after we moved in to our new apartment, I was made redundant.
The events made us reconsider our lives and gave us the opportunity to change focus. We made a list of what we thought mattered most to us:
- Live and work in a less stressful environment
- Control our own direction
- Have time to spend with friends, each other and our children
- Choose the people we work with
- Do something we find interesting and are proud of
I volunteered at an English vineyard for several months to make sure I liked the work. My wife, Rachel, is from New Zealand and we felt that it would be the logical place to learn about winemaking.
The intention was just to do the course and one vintage in New Zealand but after graduating I got offered a job as assistant winemaker at Neudorf Vineyards, one of the most prestigious estates in the country. I worked there for 18 months soaking up as much as I could. It has been invaluable experience. People ask us why we didn't set up a vineyard there. The cost of land, having to export all the wine and the feeling of isolation put us off. We decided to return to Europe.
I took French at "O" level (taught by Joanne Harris's mum!). With high standards of healthcare and education, and the tradition of small wineries making a wide range of superb wines, France was the first choice.
I'd read a lot of articles about the Languedoc-Roussillon becoming the most exciting wine region in France. In March 2005 we booked our flights, had a farewell party (with a French theme of course) and headed back. Rachel and the kids stayed at my mum's and I came here for a month's recce visiting vineyards, meeting winemakers and looking at the towns and villages.
Many people thought I was crazy to buy a vineyard in the middle of a wine crisis, but said that if I was determined to do it, to keep it small, not to get carried away with the idea of owning lots of land.
In my travels I fell in love with the Pyrenees-Orientales, the mountains, the coast, Perpignan as its city and of course its wines.
My mum had decided that she was going to come and join us so we found an off-peak rental starting in September. We all came over with our full baggage allowance and a shipment of kids toys.
After 3 months of frantic searching, we found a property through a specialist agency. On paper it was perfect - ten hectares of vines and a big old winery on the edge of the neighbouring village. We gripped each other's hands as the agent pointed out the hillside of vines we'd often admired.
We pulled into the winery courtyard and it was exactly what we had hoped for. The winery was operational, if in need of modernisation, with an impressive row of 7 massive old oak foudres.
We were all so excited that night. We'd found the thing we thought we couldn't find - right in the next village!
All agricultural property transactions in France are controlled by SAFER. This ensures that land is offered to local farmers before it can be sold off to large companies or property developers. I had to prove my qualifications and experience and show them a business plan. Then the property was then offered to local vignerons and finally the Mairie. Fortunately nobody but us wanted the property.
There is currently a lot of negativity about wine production in France and running a vineyard is never easy but nothing beats the satisfaction of knowing that we do everything ourselves - the vineyard, the winemaking, the marketing and the administration.
At the same time we have built a home within the winery. To save money for the business we chose to fit the kitchen, bathrooms, flooring and do all the decorating ourselves.
With all that hard work we don't need a gym membership anymore!
We've settled in well. Our daughters go to the village school, we enjoy buying bread from the bakers and fruit and vegetables from the weekly market. The other vignerons have been very supportive, lending equipment, offering advice and a helping hand.
We took over running the domaine in February last year so 2006 was our first vintage. Now the wines are ready and we're busy talking to merchants in the UK. It's hard work selling wine with the competition from much larger companies but merchants are interested because of our background. Customers are interested because they really love our wines. We just need to join them all up.
Our wines are available in the UK through Leon Stolarski Fine Wines, who offers free home delivery throughout the UK on case orders of Domaine Treloar, Leon Stolarski Fine Wines, Tel 0115 952 9387 www.lsfinewines.co.uk
The other thing we wanted to do is create a more visitor-friendly winery, like those in the New World, so we're doing vineyard tours, tastings, lunches, art exhibitions and several wine and food events during the year.
Yes, it's a massive amount of work and we don't get time off, but the work is varied and it is very satisfying when we receive praise from customers and visitors.
Jonathan Hesford and Rachel Treloar
Domaine Treloar, 16 Traverse de Thuir, 66300 Trouillas
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