Wednesday, 22 September 2021
ANTHEA MIRKOWSKI owns the Fairmile Vineyard in Henley with her husband Jan. Originally from Buckinghamshire, she has a degree in financial services and a master’s degree in real estate management. She is also a commercial property manager and landlord. Anthea and Jan met at a corporate entertainment day when he was a health and safety consultant. They live next to the vineyard in Fair Mile with their daughters, Eloise, 13, and Verity, nine, and two soft-coated wheaten terriers, Gibbs and Dandelion.
Describe your business
We grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, which are the traditional varieties used in the production of Champagne in France and outstanding sparkling wine in England.
How many people does it employ?
Just Jan and me until it’s time to pick the grapes (generally in early October) when we bring in experts.
What did you do previously?
Jan was working in health and safety and I was involved in commercial property and we lived in Marlow. We both did a lot of commuting and wanted a better lifestyle. Jan had been making wine as a hobby since he was young and wanted to learn how to make great wine. We recognised that the foothills in Fairmile with a steep south-facing slope and its flinty terrain would provide the ideal location for a vineyard.
When did you start your business?
We bought the land in 2012 and began preparing it, which involved securing the boundary from deer and rabbits and planting mustard to generate nitrogen in the soil. Our vines came from France and in 2013 we planted all 12,000 in a day. Then they needed to establish themselves. Our first harvest was in 2015. We use the traditional method of secondary fermentation in-bottle and it takes at least three years before the sparkling wine is ready so it wasn’t until 2018 that we released our first classic cuvée and rosé bottles. In the meantime, Jan took courses in viticulture to develop his expertise.
What was your objective?
For us to be able to work from home and make a really good quality sparkling wine.
Do you have a mentor or role model?
We had a wine consultant, Stephen Skelton, a renowned expert who has been growing vines and making wine since 1975. He gave us advice and help and taught us a lot. When the wines were ready we had some wonderful marketing advice and help from Emma Sweet, marketing manager for Brakspear.
What would you do differently if you could start again?
Nothing really as we took things slow and steady but we should have left a bit more space at the top of the hill to make it easier to turn the tractor around.
What impact is the coronavirus pandemic having?
We were hit hard when fine dining restaurants and wine bars had to close but our online sales rocketed during the lockdown.
How do you market your business?
In January we received high acclaim from Decanter magazine for our maiden vintage. Our Classic Cuvée beat distinguished and long-established vineyards to be voted England’s only “outstanding” sparkling white wine out of 53 under £50. We hold open days and normally attend local events. We also use social media.
What’s the best thing about running your own business?
Meeting so many lovely people.
What’s the most challenging aspect?
Having time off — we can’t just take off for a couple of weeks as we need to be here.
Where is your business headed?
We want to carry on making exceptional wines and showcase English winemaking at its best.
How important are online sales?
Very — and we get lots of repeat orders.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?
Learning the life cycle of vines and how to anticipate any issues with the care of the grapes before they arise.
What would you advise someone starting a business?
Plan — the more effort you make to develop your knowledge, the better the outcome will be.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?
Nothing too catastrophic. What really matters is how you deal with it.
What three qualities are most important to success?
Foresight, flexibility and focus.
What’s the secret of your success?
Our location here with the terrain and the slope.
How organised are you?
We have to be organised as there are so many regulations to adhere to.
How do you dress for work each day?
Comfortable and casual unless visiting a customer.
What can’t you do without every day?
My mobile phone and computer.
Lunch at your desk or going out?
Here at home.
What do you read?
Jan reads winemaking journals and I love doing killer Sudoku.
How are you planning for retirement?
We simply want to continue to do what we are doing. Perhaps eventually to be able to step back a bit and employ a manager. We don’t want to apply any pressure but one of our daughters is showing an interest.
24 August 2020
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