They had the bottle to buy a vineyard

Their dream was to make wine, so this brave couple sold up, moved to France and grew their own grapes
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The Independent Online

The 39-year-old Englishman Robert Cripps is a fully trained winemaker who learned his skills during a five-year stint in California's Napa Valley. It was here that he met his American wife, Kim, who was also working in the trade. They decided to move to France.

They first looked for work in Burgundy but found it difficult. "The people there are quite insular and suspicious of foreigners," says Robert. "I had reasonably good French and eventually managed to find some temp work but Kim couldn't even arrange a work permit."

After about a year's struggle, the couple decided to pool their savings and start looking for their own vineyard. They concentrated on the Languedoc region principally because of its wonderfully sunny southern climate and because it was relatively cheap. They eventually found the Domaine du Poujol vineyard, close to the village of Vailhauques and a short drive from Montpellier. They paid €600,000 (£400,000) for it just over 11 years ago.

It's a pretty spot, surrounded by wooded hills and limestone escarpments where rosemary and lavender blossom in the summer. The Mediterranean coast is very close and you can just about see the Pyrenees on a clear day.

The living accommodation was adequate and recently renovated but nothing to write home about. The main house had four bedrooms and its own swimming pool while an additional outhouse served as a two-bedroom flat and office space.

"We were more interested in the vines than in the bricks and mortar," explains Kim. "The property came with 66 hectares of land, 21 of which were arable and planted with vines. The winery was already well-established and in good working order. All the necessary machinery and facilities were on-site and included in the asking price."

The vineyard was also located in a promising area - vines have been grown in this part of Languedoc since at least the 18th century - and the soil was good too. "Horses were used to plough the vineyards around here right up until the 1960s," says Robert, "and it's their manure that has given the land such an incredibly rich subsoil."

After the 1960s, however, the quality of local wine deteriorated. This was largely thanks to the growth in size and power of local cooperatives - bodies that specialise in mass-produced plonk. Recently, though, wine in the region has been improving again due to the decline of the cooperatives and their replacement by a new wave of more discerning independent winemakers like Robert and Kim.

The Domaine du Poujol had always been an independent vineyard. However, the Cripps planted a lot of new vines and introduced more stringent quality-control. They now grow a total of 11 grape varieties, five of which are controlled under the Couteaux du Languedoc appellation while the others are vins du pays that are less strictly regulated and allow the couple more scope for experimentation.

Robert tends to concentrate on the grapes, while Kim handles the marketing and distribution side. They produce about 70,000 bottles a year which they sell all over the world but mainly to England, the US, Germany and France. The couple employ one local French helper all the year round and about 20 casual grape pickers - mainly students - for the annual harvest.

But the couple confess to mixed feelings. "The region has changed a lot since we've been here," says Robert. "The trend has been away from bulk production and towards better-quality wines. That might be good news for the end-consumer but, as far as we're concerned, we're facing too much competition from the huge surge in the number of independent winemakers starting up."

"If we could turn back the clock, I think a vineyard in Champagne might have been more sensible," says Kim. "There seems to be an unlimited demand for Champagne, so that makes marketing it a lot easier."

Better still, she thinks, to have considered Spain or Portugal. "Both those countries are producing very good wine at the moment and, unlike France, they enjoy EU funding. It would also be a lot less hassle starting up there. The French invented bureaucracy and are very good at it."

However, the couple are still relatively happy with the way things have turned out. "We live in a glorious part of the world and we love making wine."

Domaine du Poujol, www.domainedupoujol.com, or 00 334 67 84 47 57

Wine without tears

* Learn the requisite skills before even considering buying a vineyard.

* Carefully check the pedigree and the soil conditions of the vineyard.

* Make a five-year business-plan and budget for zero turnover for at least the first 18 months.

* Take account of all the local competition.

* Learn the language.

* Arrange marketing and distribution before you begin bottling.

* Fully acquaint yourself with the legal requirements of starting up a business.

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