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A good year: When bankers turn to wine

Wine

It’s 8am when I speak to John Skinner. He’s already been up for a couple of hours and started his day chasing five deer around his vineyard on a quad bike. “You have to get them off the land because the shoots are pushing through right now and it’s wonderful food for the deer. They can cause havoc.”

His life as the proprietor of the Painted Rock vineyard in British Columbia is unrecognisable from his former career as a stockbroker in Vancouver for Yorkton Securities and Canaccord Capital. “It’s beautiful here,” he gushes. “There are two deer standing 25 feet away from me. Blasted things.”

Wine and financial services are at two ends of a spectrum, says Richard von Seidel, who left his life as an investment banker at Deutsche Bank to buy his Chateau Damase vineyard in Bordeaux, France. “When you work in financial markets, you’re not producing anything. Farming is the most fundamental thing in the world to do.” von Seidel lives in an ancient stone house that was once part of a feudal castle overlooking his vineyards. In such beautiful surroundings, early starts and late nights aren’t as much of a chore as they used to be.

Ajay Shetty started his banking career at Morgan Stanley and after a stint at Merrill Lynch ended up at Daiwa Capital Markets. He founded Myra Vineyards, headquartered in Bangalore, in 2011. “I like the tangible aspect of it,” he says. Like the other bankers-turned-vintners we spoke to, Shetty had a desire to watch something grow – both grape vines and a business.

Feed your soul, not your bank balance

It’s not uncommon for bankers to long for a more simple way of life, away from the cold, hard world of finance. And, when it comes to wine, “what’s not to like?” asks von Seidel. “Wine is an art form,” he says. “When you taste it, it’s like listening to a symphony or looking at an art work. You try to identify all the tastes, aromas and complexities. I’ve always found wine has a flavour to study.”

Despite the disparity, there are good reasons why bankers are drawn to owning vineyards. “I think most bankers have a passion for eating and drinking,” says Shetty. “A lot of your work as a banker involves eating out and entertaining clients, so you are more exposed to international food and drink.”

It also takes a lot of capital to make a successful wine business, which gives former bankers an advantage over many. “You have to have the staying power,” says Skinner. “I’ve always said that if Painted Rock were a public company with a board of directors, I’d have been fired a long time ago. I’ve made decisions that were instinctive and a board wouldn’t have thought they made good business sense.”

When Skinner first acquired the vineyard, he bought brand new French oak barrels at $1,300 each because he was determined not to use second hand equipment. It was six years before the business generated any cash flow, but in 2011 Painted Rock winery was ranked the best in British Columbia and third best in Canada at the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards.

“I have a passion for wine, but passion alone doesn’t feed your soul,” explains Shetty. You need money too. “My project had to make good business sense. I knew there was a market for it, but we had to go about it in the right way.” All our bankers-turned-vintners also realised there was a business opportunity in their lifestyle change.

Wine-collection

A gap in the market

“In India the wine market is pretty new. But there’s a lot of money here, so people are interested in learning about drinking and eating as a concept,” says Shetty. “Years ago, India wasn’t open to a lot of things, but now we have the latest cars and the latest houses. Every revolution has happened except in food and drink. But it’s starting to happen now.”

Skinner similarly spotted an exciting gap in the market: “In British Columbia the government introduced a scheme, the Vinifera Programme, to improve the quality of wine from the region. They paid vineyards to pull out high-producing, horrible clones [inferior plants] and plant vinifera [high quality plants]. That was in the late 1980s and I thought to myself ‘I’m going to watch this.’ I watched it though the 1990s and at the end of that decade it really started to show promise.”

The skills from their previous lives have been easily transferred into their new occupations. Skinner says he approaches his wine business in the same way he approached his career as a stockbroker. “When I did mining deals I surrounded myself with the best talent in the business to make the best strategic decisions,” he says. “That’s what I do here.”

“In the past, I would wake up and see what the Asian markets did over night. Now I wake up and look at a weather report,” says Skinner. “You’re always at the mercy of something. The nice thing about the weather is there’s nothing you can do. It’s down to the gods.”

Although all think their quality of life has improved since making the move from the trading floor to the vineyard, none of them regret their initial career choices. “There are certainly moments when I miss the excitement we had during the boom years, ” says von Seidel. “I don’t get the same intellectual stimulation that I got from the financial markets. My colleagues were the cream of the crop intellectually.”

Skinner admits that he wouldn’t want his children to take over the vineyard – he thinks that the business is better suited to people at his stage in life. And even though he lives in a beautiful part of France, doing what he loves, he admits that “there are times when I’d like a day or two back in the markets.”

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