Having left her corporate life behind and seen her grown-up sons leave home, Sally Evans needed a project – so she created a successful winery in Bordeaux, says Richard Webber…
Giving up corporate life to pursue a dream is something many of us wish for, but few ever achieve. It takes courage, determination, foresight and drive in bucket- loads, which is something Sally Evans can attest to.
The 60-year-old marketing specialist, whose long CV includes running a family hostelry and being marketing director for a tech services company, fell in love with France almost 30 years ago. “I moved to Paris for love and for a new start because my then partner was starting an MBA. Plus, I wanted my two sons to grow up bilingual and bicultural,” explains Sally.
After several years of jetting around the world for work, Sally began to feel that her work/ life balance was out of kilter. “I wanted to enjoy the French way of life fully, rather than just on holiday.” This, coupled with a wish to spend more time with her children, saw Sally wave goodbye to corporate life which, after Paris, had taken her to Valbonne in the south.
By the time her youngest son had left home, Sally had decided to focus on the rest of her life. “I wanted to have a project that not only involved renovating a property, but also created a business that I was really passionate about.”
It didn’t take Sally long before the idea of winemaking came to mind. “It combines everything from nature and history to science and creativity; it’s a very sociable product, too. So, I started studying wine for pleasure and soon realised it was where my future lay.”
Swapping the south of France for another area of the country became part of the new adventure. She settled on the Bordeaux region. “I’d drunk Bordeaux wines but had never visited the city or surrounds, so thought a new adventure in this area of France would be the perfect next chapter.”
PICKING A PROPERTY
Finding the right property is always a challenge, especially if a vineyard forms part of the requirements. But Sally, who’s now single, found what she was looking for in the tiny village of Saillans near Libourne, situated 40 minutes outside Bordeaux at the confluence of the Dordogne and Isle rivers.
“I live in a renovated worker’s cottage surrounded by my parcel of vines. When I was property-hunting, one criteria was that I wanted to step out of the house and into the vines. The property I bought belonged to another château that separated off this parcel of vines and buildings.” From that point, Sally set about starting a boutique winery from scratch. “Fortunately, Saillans has the most magnificent terroir for making wine: Fronsac clay over limestone bedrock running through the village from St- Émilion. It’s perfect, with so much potential.”
Sally isn’t one to shy away from hard work, which is just as well because while she was renovating the ramshackle buildings she had bought, she was also busy studying for a diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.
“I started by renovating the house, which dates from the 1950s. This involved adding bathrooms, opening up the kitchen, replacing the floors and installing extra windows to introduce more light. In fact, everything needed doing, including new electrics, plumbing and a new septic tank. The garage at the back of the house was transformed into a guest suite. Outside was left until last, at which point I painted the facade and added a terrace from which I can watch the stunning sunsets.”
NEW LEASE OF LIFE
Sally hired a local maître d’oeuvre to oversee the work but was closely involved in choosing materials and making decisions. “A renovation is always hard work but it’s exciting, too, especially when you have essentially a blank canvas.” The renovation was finally completed in 2018, leaving Sally with a four- bedroom home standing amid beautiful, rolling countryside.
Fortunately, dealing with local builders and other specialists posed few problems because Sally is fluent in French and had a clear idea of what she wanted. “I tackled the renovation like I tackled the business, taking an honest look at what I could and couldn’t do before sourcing the best local expertise I could afford. But I didn’t know anyone in the local area and so had to build a network from scratch.”
Once the house was complete, attention turned to the winery. However, Sally soon learnt how the vagaries of the weather can be the vigneron’s worst nightmare. “It was a false start in 2017 because a huge frost across the right bank of Bordeaux wiped out all but a few grapes. So, 2018 was my first full vintage and coincided with me moving full- time to the Fronsac appellation in time for the harvest.”
Further investment involved building barrel rooms and adding a thermo- regulation system to maintain temperature during fermentation and maturation. “I also reached out to find local expertise – people who’d lived and breathed wine all their lives – and found Anthony and Bruno who oversee the whole wine production, telling me what I need to do every step of the way so I can produce the best possible wine.”
Spring 2019 marked an important milestone for Sally because she presented her first vintage during the annual Bordeaux En Primeur campaign. “That’s when new wines are tasted and scored by wine critics and buyers.” Such was the quality of her offering that Davy’s of London asked to be her UK distributor.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Sally developed her site further by converting an old barn into a wine tourism facility, including a wine-tasting room and terrace overlooking the vines for eating and drinking. “Now, it’s a busy, award-winning wine visitor centre, hosting tastings, lunches and special events,” explains Sally, who’s become an accredited tutor of the Bordeaux Wine School.
“Visiting clients and media come over for tastings or lunch, during which I show them a slightly different approach to wine tourism – perhaps more New World style – and highlight how an outsider can make a successful wine business in a traditional industry and area.”
From her vineyard, measuring just under three hectares, 14,000 bottles of award-winning wine are produced in two different styles of delicious Merlot. They are named after the new château and brand she has created, Château George 7. “Plus, I rent some vines from a neighbour to make white wine, which I added to the collection two years ago.”
Reflecting on the challenges she faced when making a new life for herself in France, Sally admits that getting to grips with French bureaucracy has caused a few headaches. “If someone is setting up home or a business in rural France, I’d recommend they get to know their local mayor, reach out to people and ensure you learn French. Making an effort goes a long way and you’ll be surprised how fast your French progresses if you use it daily – even if it’s only a small amount each time.
“Going to the mairie to share your plan and to ask for help with any administration, you’ll probably find, as I did, that in rural spots they welcome the investment because it improves the local area. Reaching out to integrate and become part of the community goes a long way.”
Sally wouldn’t change her life in France. “I love living here and I’m unsure if I’ll ever return to the UK full-time. Of course, I go back to visit family and to promote my wines, but there is nothing better than heading back to France where I have friends of all nationalities.”
Other than family and friends, there is little she misses about the UK. The climate certainly isn’t one of them. “Here in the southwest, it’s lovely with warm summers. The sea isn’t far away for a day trip or weekend while beautiful Bordeaux is easily reached for lunch or a spot of city life’.
So, no regrets at all? “No, definitely not!” she smiles. “I have two sons who are both totally bilingual, a French business making wine with tourists visiting from all over the world to experience my approach to wine tourism, plus I have a property that was once dilapidated but is now a four- bedroom home, winery and tourism facility surrounded by my vines producing award- winning wines. What else could I ask for?”
Despite her busy schedule, Sally still finds time to inspire others, trying to convince them that it’s never too late to change your life. “Take me, for example. I spoke French but had never made wine, didn’t know the area, was a British woman on her own, starting from scratch in a very French business in probably the world’s most well-known wine region. You need confidence in yourself and all the skills you’ve gathered during your lifetime – especially people skills – to tackle any challenge head on. My advice for anyone considering a life change is go for it and don’t look back!”
Sally is happy to talk about her own adventure to anyone considering a life change. For more information about her boutique winery, visit chateaugeorge7.com
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Lead photo credit : Photo: SALLY EVANSCHATEAU GEORGET