A move from London to Provence enabled Stephen Cronk to pursue his dream of becoming a winemaker, as Anna McKittrick discovers
Sipping a glass of perfectly chilled rosé while soaking up the Provençal countryside could hardly get more perfect. But when the glass of wine you’re drinking is the fruit of your own labours, it tastes even better. It certainly does for Stephen Cronk since he fulfilled his lifelong ambition to become a winemaker, following a move with his family from London to Provence in 2009.
Stephen, 49, first got the wine bug while he was on his gap year in Australia. On returning from his travels, he studied business at Brighton Polytechnic before starting work in the London wine trade. “Initially I was driving delivery vans and then, aged 24 and with the confidence of youth, I decided to set up my own wine company. But, by the time I was 30, I was horribly broke so I had to sell the business and go and get a proper job,” remembers Stephen, who worked in telecommunications for the next 15 years. During that time, Stephen met his German wife Jeany and moved to Richmond where they had their three children: Josie, Felix and George, now 12, 11 and five respectively.
Shortly after moving to Richmond, Stephen went to visit friends in Perpignan and was shocked to discover how little it cost to buy a vineyard. “My friend told me there was a vineyard on the market for the same price that we’d just paid for our terraced house in Richmond. It made me think it was ridiculous that for the same money I could have a business in a beautiful part of France,” says Stephen.
The seed for relocating to France and becoming a winemaker was firmly planted after that trip, but it took a few years for it to become a reality. “We used to have a blackboard in our kitchen, and a friend asked me to write a timeline for when we planned to move to France. He took a picture and when he came back to visit a few years later, he showed it to me and I’d missed those dates. That made me think; I didn’t want to be someone who fantasises about stuff, I actually wanted to do it,” enthuses Stephen.
But, after chatting to winemakers, Stephen quickly realised that he didn’t have the funds necessary to realise the dream fully. “I couldave just about bought a vineyard, but you also need to have about 10 years’ worth of capital in the bank to sustain your family and the investments in the vineyard before you actually have an income,” says Stephen, adding: “There’s an expression in the wine trade that you can make a small fortune in the wine business if you start with a large one.”
After realising that his dream was out of reach, Stephen decided to put the idea on the backburner for a few years. But he knew he wanted to work in the French wine business in some capacity and with dogged determination he decided to move to France to become an agent representing other people’s vineyards, which involved selling wines to overseas buyers.
When it came to choosing where to relocate, Stephen says they had the pick of France but gravitated south to Provence as Jeany’s family used to own a holiday home in Cannes. Their original plan was to move to Aix-en-Provence, in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône, and enrol their children into one of the international schools in the city, but when Stephen met up with Tom Bove, an American living in the region, he changed his mind.
“Tom told me I was doing it all wrong and that, rather than living in a city and putting the children into international school, they should go to a French village school. He said they might cry for the first year, but they’ll thank you for the rest of their lives. That was the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given,” says Stephen, who ended up moving to a charming village called Cotignac, 50 minutes to the east of Aix, where they have rented a property since arriving in 2009. With a population of 2,000, Stephen says Cotignac is the perfect size and, unlike other Provençal villages, it doesn’t become a ghost town during the winter.
Even though it was a complete lifestyle shift to move from London to rural France, the family quickly adapted to village life. “We felt absolutely ready for it as we’d been talking about it for so long. I wanted to rent the house in the UK, but Jeany said if we’re going to do this then we should do it wholeheartedly rather than keeping a foot in both camps. Because we made such a complete change, not only from city to country but also with the cultural and language differences, it almost made it easier to settle in,” remembers Stephen.
When they first moved to France, Stephen was busy running his wine agency business but he soon decided that he wanted to make his own Provence label rosé. “In Provence, 88% of the wine made is rosé and over the past 20 years, rosé wines have been drunk more than white wine.
“The French understand that rosé is such a flexible wine because it can be combined with more foods than any other wine,” enthuses Stephen, who says he found a way round producing wine without having a small fortune in the bank. “I’d been thinking about it and realised that to make great wine, you don’t need a château or a domaine. What you need is great vineyards and a great winemaking team. So I started cold calling all the biggest wineries in the area asking if they had any surplus wine that I could use in blending my own-label brand and they all told me to go away.” He eventually found a vineyard near Aix-en-Provence, who was on board with the innovative concept.
Stephen explains how the process works. “I am what the French call a négociant, which is a legal status that allows me to do whatever I want with regards to buying either grapes, part-fermented juice or finished wine. I buy the wine after fermentation rather than grapes, so I go to the wineries and taste every tank they make available to us and then we just blend and blend and blend until we find the right balance, which can take some time.”
Finding a name for the wine was a big challenge for Stephen, as he wanted it to relate to Provence but be pronounceable and memorable. After days of searching, Stephen came across Comte de Mirabeau, who lived in Aix-en-Provence during the Revolution. Today the main road that runs through Aix is named Cours Mirabeau in his honour. Stephen loved the historical connection to the region and amazingly the name wasn’t already trademarked, so they were able to call their wine Mirabeau.
With the name decided, they came up with a concept for the design of the label that has a personal connection. “We decided to create a tree of life theme around a vine with five birds that represent the five of us,” says Stephen. “The essence is that you can uproot a plant and replant it somewhere else and it will take root again and that’s what we’ve done in moving from London to Provence. We’ve stayed together as a strong family unit even though we’ve moved.”
Stephen and his team, which includes British winemaker and Master of Wine Angela Muir, produced their first vintage of Mirabeau rosé in 2010 and since then it’s gone from strength to strength, which is testament to his team’s hard work and determination; not only in creating the wine but also Stephen’s drive to promote it through social media, as well as their website and blog. The rosé, which is sold in Waitrose, was judged equal first by wine critic Jancis Robinson among the Côtes de Provence rosés she tasted in 2012, and this year the rosé has already won three medals in international wine competitions. Mirabeau also produces white wine, which Waitrose took for the first time this year, and a red although on a much smaller scale.
Stephen says the local community has been very supportive about their wine venture. “Because we’re not trying to sell wine locally, we’re only exporting it, we don’t come across any competition or resentment but it will be interesting to see what happens when we open up the wine shop in Cotignac next year.”
Over the next 12 months, Stephen and a friend are planning to transform a 350-year-old former winery in the centre of Cotignac into a wine cellar selling ageing reds and a shop, which Jeany is looking to stock with local Provençal products. It’s an exciting project for the Cronk family, and while Stephen is happy that he’s been able to fulfil his ambition of producing wine, he says he continues to dream of owning a vineyard one day: “I am still locked into this romantic notion of opening my shutters and looking out across the vines. Of course, I would like to have a château and be very rich but most people aren’t, so if you’ve got an idea then you’ve just got to do it. It’s better to look back on your life and regret trying things rather than not trying.” A motto definitely worth raising a glass to. LF