Seizing that second chance, in France
Patricia Atkinson knew nothing about grapes nor tractors nor publishing when she moved from London to Bergerac. Fifteen years later she has, single-handedly, created a thriving vineyard and become a best-selling writer.
She was once in the fast-lane of London finance - a power dressing PR manager with an international bank in the City. The last thing Patricia Atkinson had in mind as she fought her way through commuter traffic was learning to mount, let alone drive, a tractor.
But her life was soon to change so far and so fast that nothing could have prepared her for it. At first there was a choice, but the events which subsequently unfolded set Atkinson upon a path along which there was simply no exit.
It became a monumental test of character and stamina, and it ultimately led to a fruition, in every sense of the word.
"If anybody had told me...that I'd be doing this now, I'd never, ever, have believed them!" says Atkinson who has single-handedly created a winery in France's Dordogne region. It now produces 70,000 bottles per year from 21 hectares of hillside vine in the Bergerac, a world away from her former home near Windsor, close to London.
Her remarkable story has since become a best-selling book, The Ripening Sun, with 100,000 copies sold worldwide, and so far translated into four languages with a French edition about to be published.
"The whole thing was a bit of an accident," she says, with typical understatement.
When Atkinson gave up her job to prepare to move to France she was 40 years old. It was a decision made together with her husband James, a London-based financial consultant. Like many, they yearned to leave the rat-race for a rural idyll in France.
"The children were grown-up and had left home for university. We decided to take the plunge for a total change of lifestyle," explains Atkinson. But they had no idea that the plunge would leave them struggling in deep water.
They spent a year looking for the dilapidated small-country house of their dreams, and eventually found it, sited about 10 miles from the town of Bergerac in south-west France. It had a small-holding of 4.5 hectares, planted mostly with mediocre vine.
The couple believed they'd have a comfortable existence, financed by James' long-distance consultancy work, which would allow them to dabble, if ever the fancy took them, with the tiny winery as an exotic hobby.
But shortly after moving in, during the hot summer of 1990, James fell seriously ill with a rare immunity disorder. His lovely new home, and the precious dream the couple shared, faded into the four white walls of a hospital room.
Patricia had no job and soon the couple's once comfortable finances slipped away. What had once been a situation of choice became a desperate predicament where there was no longer any. The only solution, however uncertain the outcome, was to roll up her sleeves and try to make a go of the small and all but abandoned vine surrounding the house. No longer a hobby, this was now the only hope for salvation.
The obstacles were daunting: she knew nothing about wine-making - and she spoke no French.
"Oh, it was certainly tough, but there was no choice," she says bluntly. "My neighbours taught me basics like how to drive the tractor and operate the sprayer. If anything, being a woman probably meant I received more help."
"Local people looked on at what I was doing with interest and curiosity, but I must stress that there was nothing but kindness towards me. Those were long, long days. And the pruning! I rapidly grew muscles where women aren't suppose to have them!"
Atkinson was permanently joined to a French-English dictionary, clutched in hand as she carefully recorded the advice of a local professional oenologist.
"He began by asking me a very simple question! Did I want to make good wine or bad?" she recalls, insisting that this moment was decisive in what was to come. "There were so many things to do - beginning with very basic hygienic improvements like replacing the mud floor of the chais with cement."
Her first year was a calendar of adversity. An experienced vine-hand who first helped out one day a week suddenly quit to move to a job elsewhere. Then her first taste of nature's vagaries came with a late, deadly frost which killed off many of the buds.
James eventually, after a long and exhausting period, recovered his health and decided that he wanted to return to Britain. But by then Patricia was firmly planted in her new life. There was no turning back. It was a period of yet more pain for a couple who's lives had been shaken to the very roots. They decided amicably to separate and they remain close friends.
Less than two years into her new life as a vigneron, Patricia produced her first wine - a few thousand bottles of reds, dry and sweet whites from the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes she had tended with so much blood, sweat and just a few tears.
Meeting the physical demands to get to that stage had been a major challenge;"It's just amazing how many miles you have to walk every single day," she sighs.
She sent a couple of pallets to a warehouse in Britain from where a friend hawked samples around a few restaurants and retailers. She was determined her wine would sell. "It was all very amateurish," remembers Atkinson.
But it worked. Merchant house Justerini and Brooks ordered their first of what was to become many consignments of sweet whites. The reds and rosé were to follow soon after.
Atkinson's winery, the Clos d'Yvigne, began to blossom. After so much graft, this was the moment to sit down and savour triumph after the long haul.
So she rewarded herself with a series of wine-tasting courses, which turned out to be a further step towards her destiny. "This was a definite awakening. You might say it was - after setting out to just get on with what had to be done - the beginning of a passion for wine."
Atkinson was told she had a remarkable professional nose - and was subsequently invited to join the team of judges on the Bergerac appellation committee's tasting panel. "It was intimidating at first, but it gave me such great confidence."
She built on the potential of her land's limestone-based terroir of gravel and clay. The yield was reduced to improve quality, and she ripped out old vine and re-planted new varieties.
In 1998, Atkinson bought-up a neighbour's plot of 11 hectares of vine, bringing her estate to a whopping 21 hectares of land, and her yearly production was boosted to 70,000 bottles.
Two thirds of this are now exported to the UK.
"In France, I sell to one negociant, quite a number of restaurants and there is a sizeable volume of drive-by sales," says Atkinson. In Britain, her bottles appear on the wine-list of the only restaurant in the British capital to have been awarded with the Michelin three-stars, The Waterside.
"A lot of it has been by word of mouth. It was after a dinner party where one of my bottles was served that I got a call from someone at Corney & Barrow."
'People travel to the vinyard with the book, and I find that so humbling'
It was all a far cry from those early days spent cranking the tractor. Now her production spans two reds, two dry whites, one sweet white and a rosé. Her success afforded Atkinson the luxury of one full-time worker on the estate.
Then came the book. Atkinson's remarkable life story, which Expatica first reported upon in 2002, attracted increasing media interest. An article in the pages of the London Evening Standard caught the interest of UK publishers Random House and in 2003 she published her own account of an inspiring self-discovery. The Ripening Sun became a runaway success. Now it is about to be published in French.
"People take the trouble to travel all the way to the vinyard with the book and I find that so humbling", says Atkinson, who's promotional tours have taken her across the globe. She has had the bonus of the book stirring international interest in her wine: "They even know about me now in Hong Kong."
She says that depite all the relative fame bestowed by her writing, little has changed locally, and there is no resentment. "People here are proud and pleased for me." That approbation is unlikely to remain so discreet after the French version, with the pun title Les raisins du bonheur, hits bookstores in February.
But Atkinson is still sobre; "You should never take anything for granted." She is, however, not far off becoming a celebrity, perhaps only as far away as this June, when a thirsty Random House publish a sequel to her first book, to be titled La belle saison, a celebration of the sensual and spiritual pleasures of her life in France.
Atkinson's recipe for success: passion, determination and never be smug
Perhaps the force behind the success of Atkinson in meeting that almighty challenge 15 years ago is also the reason she is now slightly reluctant, and plainly shy, about these heady times. She knows how fragile life, of any sort, can be, not least that of what will always remain her livliehood, the vine.
She is also as financially canny as any small holding French wine producer could - and should - be. "Of course, what's also nice when people come to visit with the book is that they generally buy a bottle or two before leaving."
She is uneasy, perhaps even fearful, in face of congratulations and she offers stern advice to anyone thinking of taking on a run-down vinyard. "You need determination, passion and a bit of luck," she says, "and it is essential that you are never smug about what you are making."
She has no plans to end this second life, which has now become the only one she recognises as being truly her own. In fact, she sees nothing accidental about it. "On reflection, it's a pity I didn't begin wine-making earlier," she says, laughing just a little.
There'll be no going back for Patricia Atkinson.
Patricia Atkinson's vineyard:
Le Clos d'Yvigne
24240 Gageac et Rouillac
Tel: 05 53 22 94 40
Fax: 05 53 23 47 67
e-mail address: email@example.com
Web site: www.cdywine.com
Graham Tearse / Expatica
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