First published by High50 30 June 2015 by Rosanna Dickinson
Stephen Cronk of Maison Mirabeau moved to France to make a rosé wine that’s now winning awards. He reveals the challenges he faced and his top tips for starting your own business.
Stephen Cronk’s Maison Mirabeau rosé has been described as “heartachingly beautiful” by wine expert Matthew Jukes. High praise indeed for a Brit working in the French wine market.
The Mirabeau website informs visitors that Provence has been making rosé wine since 600BC. How very annoying then that it takes a Brit to come over and challenge the status quo.
Stephen, the founder of Maison Mirabeau, is in his fifties and has had three careers. He worked in the wine trade for eight years, ended up broke, went into the telecoms industry, then returned to wine as a negociant (wine blender and bottler).
Not only has Stephen moved to France and now makes a delicious wine, he is also a YouTube sensation. His video How to open a bottle of wine using your shoe went viral with ten million hits.
He has clearly identified a market gap in this notoriously traditional industry and is engaging customers in an innovative way.
And his wine has won several awards: the Gold and Silver Medal at the Rosé Masters 2014, 90 and 89 points from top critic Robert Parker, and this year’s Gold Medal at the Grand Concours d’Agricole in Paris.
I meet Stephen at the Taste of London festival, where he is promoting his rosé from a converted cornflower-blue Citroën van.
What convinced you to leave the security of your job in London?
I was offered a big promotion and it was make or break time. Do we move and make wine, or stay in London and try to make it in telecoms? We decided to move to the south of France and make wine.
Initially, I wanted to rent out the London house but my wife, Jeany, persuaded me to sell it. She said if we are going to do this we are going to it properly.
How did you finance the business?
I financed it through selling our house. We don’t have any backers. It’s just Jeany and myself out on this crazy adventure by ourselves.
What was your biggest challenge?
There were a whole load of different challenges. I was 45 when I started, so I was in ‘no going back’ territory. I had to do it wholeheartedly.
Lots of my friends were at that crossroads too, thinking, ‘Do I want to carry on with this career for the next 20 years or more?’ I was so lucky I knew what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t change a thing. I love making wine and it’s great fun.
How have your family reacted to moving?
The family is so much part of our story. We took our children out of London and put them in French schools without speaking a word of the language, so that was tough. Jeany has become very integrated in Cotignac life and we have just started selling our wine in the local boutique.
My dream now is to make enough money to buy a vineyard with a chateau and to look at my own vines.
Was it hard to build relationships with the French growers?
We started off by approaching someone who knew about wine-making. It’s a very serious business and I certainly didn’t know enough about it so we employed a Master of Wine, Jo Ahearne, who has been with us a long time and is an awesome blender.
We focus on making the blend our way and then creating the brand behind Mirabeau. Just like the champagne houses, we find growers who we like to work with.
How happy were the French that a Brit was taking over their territory?
Generally, I would say they have accepted us very well. There was one local chateau that reported us to the fraud office for some minor misdemeanour but generally they have taken us on board.
They have invited my wife to sit on the board of the inter-professional body that does the marketing for Provence as a region. So we are getting there.
Red grapes are crushed and the skins are allowed to remain in contact with the juice for one to three days. The juice is then pressed and the skins are discarded. The more time the juice is in contact with the skins, the darker the rosé. Provencal rosé is traditionally very pale.
How long does it take to establish a wine label?
It takes forever as there is so much competition. There are 670 established rosé producers in France so I am the new kid on the block trying to create a brand that people can engage with.
How did you start selling it?
When we started I visited Waitrose and managed to persuade the buyer that we would create a brand that everyone will love. He didn’t believe me but said he would give us a chance and put us on the bottom shelf of 60 stores.
For some reason it worked and now we are stocked in all 300 stores at eye level. They like what we are doing as we are creating a buzz around the brand. We are now selling Mirabeau in 20 countries across the world.
What mistakes have you made with the business?
There have been many cock-ups along the way but our biggest was when Waitrose gave us their first order and all the capsules turned up gold instead of black. There is a six-week lead time so we thought we had lost our first customer but we got through it, as you do with most cock-ups.
Stephen’s top three tips for starting a business in your 50s
- Be committed. There is no going back.
- Make sure the whole family is supporting you.
- You have to be passionate about what you do. You need complete belief in the product, the lifestyle and career