Patricia Atkinson was the woman with it all and she gave it up for a dream of wine making ...
PATRICIA Atkinson had a busy, secure and charmed life. Originally from Windsor, after five years living in Carmarthen, she and her husband moved to London to pursue high-flying financial consultancy jobs in the City.
It was a whirlwind existence, packed with business functions, 12-hour days in the office and all the trappings of a well-paid career.
But Patricia wanted more: not of the same, but something completely different. She wanted a slower, more relaxed life, and a new challenge.
In 1990, fast approaching her 40th birthday, Patricia and her husband James decided to sell up, leave behind the breakneck pace of London and move to rural France.
With five children, the youngest of whom was about to take A-levels, Patricia and James were confident that their annual 10-day holiday in the Loire Valley could be successfully turned into a new life, complete with James's dream of a few vines, as Patricia says, 'not many, but enough for a small, recreational business.'
They packed all their belongings into two huge lorries, said goodbye to their friends and family, and set off for a quiet country life.
They chose the small but beautiful village of Gageac Rouillac, an hour from Bordeaux in the Dordogne, South West France, and bought a rundown farmhouse, with an accompanying tiny vineyard, which was only four hectares, hardly big enough to produce anything worth selling.
Preparing to share their home with a seemingly endless succession of builders, plumbers and electricians, Patricia and James set about getting to know the area and community.
There were two main problems. Firstly, Patricia couldn't speak any French, and found it a slow, arduous process to learn. Even the most basic of conversations, with neighbours and in shops, became a stressful battle. Secondly, towards the end of 1990 and after only a few months in France, recession hit. Patricia says, 'I felt total panic.'
Wracked by financial worries, the couple decided that James would start making trips to London in order to kick-start his financial consultancy business and bring some money in.
Patricia was to discover hidden strengths. 'I had no choice but to stay calm and think about what could be done. My survival instinct soon kicked in.'
Then further disaster hit. James became ill, a recurrence of a condition he'd first shown signs of in London: systemic lupus, an auto-immune disease that affects each sufferer in different ways. The only sensible option was for James to return permanently to London to receive treatment and rest.
Patricia was left alone in France, knowing little French and even less about wine.
As she says, 'I knew nothing of the business of wine and I couldn't speak French. I felt a fraud and a foreigner. I hardly knew how to turn on the tractor, and the pipes and pumps terrified me.
'I tasted the wine from the vat and I didn't know what I was supposed to be looking for. I did a racking and hadn't the faintest idea why I was doing it. I understood less than half of what anybody was saying to me, if that, and every time I thought I was making progress in the language, I seemed to regress. And as far as any technical language is concerned, I hadn't even begun. And furthermore, I didn't want to be there at all.'
But Patricia knew that she had to make a go of the vineyard in order to survive and stay in France. Faced with such an enormous task, Patricia set about addressing these problems, one by one.
'I knew I had to work it, to make a go of the vineyard which I'd named Clos D'Yvigne. It was overwhelming though. But I had incredible help. The French respect people who have a good work ethic, and they knew I was prepared to work.'
Gradually, she learnt French, including the specialist terms for wine-growing. Next, she enlisted help in learning the backbreaking techniques of harvesting and wine-making, including driving a tractor, pruning, trimming, tying-up and spraying the vines.
'One day I was out in the fields, trying to drive the tractor, and it was making a terrible racket. Tractors are huge great monsters, at least this old one was. My neighbour Gilles just appeared in the field to help. He could hear the terrible noise I was making and thought I was either mad or trying to make a go of things. I was grateful for his help, because that's all I was trying to do: work hard at making a go of things.'
There were plenty of mishaps and one near-fatal accident along the way. One sunny day, Patricia was driving the tractor, spraying crops with insecticide and, trying to avoid a scarily steep decline in the road, she instead opted to turn the vehicle on a tiny patch, nearly overturning in the process. 'It was only later that the enormity of what I'd done hit me. My neighbours who saw it told me I could easily have been killed.'
There were further problems. Patricia found she was lonely and devastatingly isolated without her husband. 'I felt terribly alone. I didn't know anything at first. Everything seemed so difficult. Any Welsh farmer will tell you you're at the mercy of the elements. But my instinct told me I had no option.'
The experience has made her philosophical about human resilience.
'If I could say just one thing about that whole time and what I went through, it's that you should never be surprised by your limits and your ability to exceed them. You never know what you're capable of.'
The close-knit local community came to Patricia's rescue in those first few months, taking her to its heart and educating her in the ancient agricultural rhythms of one of the finest winemaking regions in the world.
Patricia says, 'I was working all hours, and incredibly busy. But I'd never been so glad to see my bed and sleep so soundly. Food had never tasted so good either! Even if I'd felt it, there was no time for self-pity or reflection.'
At the end of her first year, Patricia started to sell a few bottles of her wine in London. It proved to be a turning-point. She began to realise that the Clos D'Yvigne label could actually do well in the competitive world of wine.
'I thought I might as well do it as well as I could. But there were still times when I was down, usually when I least expected it. Once I was totally over- whelmed by having to load a whole lorry with cases of wine, and they were so heavy and the task seemed so insur- mountable on top of everything else, I thought I couldn't do it. But I did.'
It took over a decade for Patricia to build the business, but these days, she is not only a one-woman wine-making industry but something of a critical phenomenon as well. She has won France's major wine award, the 'Coup de Coeur' from the Guide Hachette for several years running, and her wines are very highly regarded by wine writers all over Europe and the UK.
The French wine industry was, 'completely a man's world', she says. 'But they could see I was serious and that I'd really worked and they respected that. I had nothing but kindness from them.'
It's almost unheard of for a woman, and a British one at that, to break into the exclusive world of French wine and make a success of a new vineyard.
But Patricia's achieved that and more: the critics love her wine. Wine expert Robert Joseph called one of her bottles, 'One of my favourite wines of the year so far'.
High praise indeed, and even more so given that the entire vineyard, now expanded after she bought out kindly neighbour Gilles, numbers only 21 hectares, tiny by usual French standards. Patricia still does nearly all the work herself, saying, 'I do everything. I plant the vines, I harvest the grapes, I tread them and I drive tractors'. She employs only one full-time worker to lend support, and needs every hour he can give her.
The speed at which the business is growing is surprising even Patricia, who thought she was beyond being surprised at anything anymore. 'It's an ever upward spiral. We're producing between 70,000 and 75,000 bottles a year.'
She now sells her wine in top London wine bar chain John Davy, but her client list is much more diverse than that: Clos d'Yvigne produce sells through wine merchant James Nicholson in Dublin, Waitrose and Booth's in the UK and customers as far afield as Japan. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Patricia also set up her own website, www.cdywine.com, from which she could promote her vintages.
As she says, 'I didn't choose to do this. People fall into things but it seems to suit me very well. Out of terrible things all those years ago came wonderful things!'
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|Publication:||Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||May 3, 2003|
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