Briton Stephen Cronk is a man who has followed a dream that began “many moons” ago in Australia and has ended up in Cotignac Provence, south of France. Stephen talks to Janine Marsh about wine and life in France…
As a teenager he took a gap year between school and University and travelled round Australia and in the course of his journey he discovered wine. Cycling through the Barossa Valley, near Adelaide, on a tandem (on his own, it was the last hire bike left in the shop!) he visited the famous Australian vineyards and was introduced to the “wonderful world of wine” sipping Australian Chablis (as it could then be called) in his tent at night. On his return to the UK he decided that he wanted to work in that world.
Stephen got a job delivering wine in London whilst enrolled on a college course to study wines and spirits and eventually he set up his own wine import business which sadly didn’t work out as hoped. Stephen admits that he “left the wine trade at the age of 30 with a heap of debt (from trying to set up my own business at the young age of 24)”. He then went into the telecommunications business “which paid well and enabled me to clear all my debt very quickly” and after 15 years was on the eve of a big promotion that would bring financial comfort to his family but it would also bring more stress and less time together.
Several years before when Stephen and his wife Jeany bought their first house they’d visited friends in Perpignan and Stephen says “they walked me round a vineyard that was on the market for the same price we’d just paid for a small terrace house in south-west London. It just didn’t seem right!” There and then he knew that what he really wanted was to produce his own wine, but it seemed like that was one of those grand ideas that would never come true. With a big promotion, the chance of ever becoming wine maker would become almost impossible…
Stephen and his wife Jeany discussed what to do and Jeany told him to either follow his dream “or forever hold his peace” and in 2008 they took a momentous decision. “Of course” Stephen says, “Jeany needed a little persuasion to sell the family house, take the children out of school and away from all their friends… but in the end she agreed as she thought I might be unbearable to live with otherwise!”
Stephen, Jeany and their three young children embarked on an adventure to follow Stephen’s dream of making wine they moved to the beautiful town of Cotignac and started making wine under the Mirabeau label.
I asked Stephen why Cotignac: “We got really lucky with Cotignac. We were recommended to move here by an American friend who moved to the village when he sold his chateau to Brad and Angelina a few years ago. He had moved to France from the US several years before and he advised us to send our children to a village school and he suggested Cotignac. It is not only a very pretty village, but it doesn’t completely close down for winter, as so many villages do around here do. There are people from all over the place here (30 nationalities that we know of”) and there is a real buzz around Cotignac all year round. Nice and Marseille airports are just over an hour away so we get lots of friends and family visit us”.
Stephen says that when they moved to France the family barely spoke a word of French, they simply packed their belongings up in a truck for the last time, left their comfortable home in south west London and headed off for France. His goal was to set up a small wine business with the principle objective of creating a brand new Provence rosé – and he wanted it to be one of the best from the region.
He explains that in order to achieve this aim, he put together a highly experienced winemaking team (French and British) “With no formal training (and the clock ticking on our savings), I knew I had to get my wine right from the get-go. So I enlisted the help of seasoned winemaker and Master of Wine, Angela Muir. Angela is amazing. She’s made wine in around 20 countries and in that regard is probably one of the most experienced winemakers in the world. Our wine – Mirabeau – is already recognised as a top flight Provence rosé and that is all down to Angela”.
Stephen works tirelessly and enthusiastically on his Mirabeau wine which is sold in 7 countries and has earned acclaim from some of the world’s toughest wine journalists. The UK Daily Mail has called it “a heart-achingly beautiful rosé from the finest region in the world for this style of wine. Effortlessly classy and eminently affordable, this is a must-have wine for refined entertaining”.
Life is not all rosy for these dauntless expats in France though. After 4 years they’re still renting and trying to build their own home. They purchased the perfect plot of land, were granted planning permission by the local Town Hall but the house is nowhere close to being built. Unfortunately British neighbours have thwarted the build as they’re unhappy with the Cronks’ house being built 80m from their own house and the legalities are still to be resolved. Stephen says that this is really the only “frustrating element of our story. We have looked at dozens of other properties and plots in the meantime and we can’t find anything that really suits”.
Everything else has gone even better than they dared hope. Stephen confesses they had worries about the children going to a French school. Their daughter took it in their stride but their son cried every morning for the first 6 months: “It was very difficult for him (and us). But now he’s doing fine and has made some good friends. The best thing for us is hearing our kids nattering in a language they didn’t even know existed 4 years ago… they switch effortlessly between English, French and German” (Jeany is German and the children have picked up the language from her).
I ask if it’s possible to miss anything from the UK when you live in such a beautiful part of France and can’t help laughing when Stephen tells me he misses “decent beer”! He acknowledges as well that it is easier to “get stuff done” but “we’ve made lots of friends here and for us life is a huge, hairy adventure. We’re living in a beautiful part of the world doing what we love doing. We’re creating a new business from scratch; Jeany is helping our friends build three houses as well as looking after three children, is President of the parents committee in the village and working on the Mirabeau brand… We’ve got a winery and shop project to work on for next year too. We are planning to renovate a 17th century former winery into a barrel cellar and shop for next summer to give a real presence to Mirabeau… we are very busy…”
Read Stephen’s master class on French rosé wines.
Find out more from their website Mirabeauwine.com