Chalk Talks: Episode 1 - Rathfinny Estate

Chalk Talks is a business podcast presented by Switchplane's Head of Marketing, Garry James, which tells stories about businesses and organisations in the south east from a range of different sectors, how they have been affected by COVID-19, and their inevitable shift to doing more online. The first episode features Sarah Driver from Rathfinny Estate.


Sarah Driver and husband Mark lived and worked in London. Mark took a two-year viticulture course, learning about how the UK is making some of the best sparkling wine in the world. During the first year of the course, a piece of land came up for sale in Alfriston...and as they say, the rest is history!

Situated just 80-100 miles north of the French Champagne region and sharing many of the same geographical qualities, Rathfinny Estate now makes what it set out to achieve: a world-class Sussex Sparkling wine. They also offer experiences on top of their wine production, including accommodation in flint barns and a fine-dining Tasting Room.

Key problems faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic:

Rathfinny Estate currently exports wine to Hong Kong and they had planned to export 50% of their product, launching their new collection of wines into European markets at a trade fair in April 2020. This fair was unfortunately cancelled due to COVID-19.

The closure of hotels, restaurants and bars has had a significant impact on the company, due to the amount of on-trade sales they had hoped to make, as distributors couldn’t sell the product to trade.

The Tasting Room had been open for about 18 months and growing in popularity, and 2020 was expected to be Rathfinny’s first ‘big year’ in relation to wine tourism. Due to coronavirus, Rathfinny were forced to close the Tasting Room, as well as their flint barn accommodation and their Cellar Door shop. Wine tours also had to be cancelled, along with a number of weddings.

Changes made within the business throughout COVID-19:

  • Rathfinny is a large local employer. Due to closures of the hospitality parts of the business, hospitality staff were initially asked to go into the vineyard to help pruning instead, before later being put on furlough.
  • Management reviewed budgets to find ways to save costs and played out scenarios to look at what could be done within the business, depending on various factors.
  • The development of a new website was accelerated, the growth of an online presence was focused upon, and the ability to sell directly to customers on the website was added. This had always been in Rathfinny’s long term plan, but COVID-19 accelerated the need for this.

What does the future look like?

Once restaurants and bars have reopened, that will produce a route to market for Rathfinny’s wines. Following lessening of government restrictions, over the summer Rathfinny will be selling picnics that can be preordered and enjoyed on the Estate and offering a Seafood Kitchen where people can take away delicious treats like lobster and fries. They’ll be offering the flint barn accommodation for sole-use staycations, so people can holiday with their families at the venue.

Rathfinny will also be developing their off-trade sales and fast-forwarding different export markets, focusing on countries that are able to restart their hospitality industries following COVID-19.

Working together with the Sussex Modern brand, local councils and National Park with regards to invigorating in the area, Sarah believes the future looks promising for this resilient county and its local workforce.

To listen to Episode 1 of Chalk Talks and hear about Sarah Driver’s Rathfinny journey in her own words, visit Anchor FM, or find Chalk Talks via your usual podcast platforms.

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