How We Started an
English Sparkling Wines Brand
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Jonica Fox, co-founder of Fox & Fox, in partnership with my husband Gerard Fox. We make the most delicious English sparkling wines that have won acclaim both here in the UK and in our export markets.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
My career has a connected thread of problem solving and creativity, from early days working in Fleet Street for the Daily Express through London and international advertising agencies with FMCG Blue-chip clients to being part of a new business set up team for Rank Plc to student and vine-growing and winemaking.
I started as an Art student, found I preferred working and went back to university in my early forties for the BSc Viticulture and Oenology at Plumpton College (University of Brighton). Gerard built his career from a BSc in Economics & Politics (Bristol University) through respected City firms, like Credit Suisse stopping to take a Master’s degree (MSc The Economics & Policy of Energy and the Environment) at The Bartlett, UCL.
These days he chairs the East Sussex County Council Pension Fund and has a separate business focusing on sustainability and renewable energy innovation and is a director of The Regulatory Policy Institute.
We are both trustees of local charities. In my case The Sussex Community Foundation and in Gerard’s, The Heinz Koeppler Trust. We have always been passionate about wine, especially grower champagnes. Holidays have featured the laid back exploration of foods and wines and that has become a part of our love of life. We are both hard workers who used holidays to catch up on sleep, eat and drink well and recharge.
Back to why we started our business…Gerard came home from a City reception saying he had enjoyed an English sparkling wine so why didn’t we plant a vineyard? So we started with one in 2004 (when planting a hectare and a half was a substantial planting for England), and then bought more land and planted another 10 hectares (a fraction under 25 acres ).
Why did we do it? Because we thought that climate-trends were on our side and we wanted to make and share the kinds of wines we ourselves love. We intentionally set out to make an English style of sparkling wine – more fruit, balanced acidity, richer, rounder, more refreshing and just a bit different: Champagne quality wines with an English twist.
I think we saw it more as an opportunity to make something really special. We believed that there is a gap in the market for high-quality wines that were locally produced. Our initial ambitions were quite modest, however as we gained confidence in our products and our ability to deliver them consistently (despite the English weather)we realised we needed to think bigger to get the right balance of investment and return.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
The greatest challenge initially for any vineyard planted on virgin land is the constant draw on capital. We started at a time when there were few vineyard service companies in the UK and everything either had to be reinvented here or imported from France, Italy or Germany (primarily). The phenomenal growth of our sector has changed that but the entry costs remain high.
Operational break even is about 10-12 years after planting. It takes time to establish vines, take a harvest, make and mature wine. In our case, we are obsessive about quality and minimal manipulation in the winery.
We grow the most beautiful grapes and believe in treating them with care and respect to deliver characterful wines that are highly enjoyable. Time plays a huge factor in this. Long lees ageing after bottling, time in tank before-hand and time under cork afterwards.
Like all farmers, it takes time to learn our land and work with it. We spend a huge amount of time and effort in the vineyard, with a focus on good vine nutrition (lots of compost!) to deliver fruit with style and character each year.
Who is your target market?
Lovers of local produce!
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
We are small, so we have to be innovative. Our customers are our brand ambassadors.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
Our wines are our best ambassadors, we have a really high repeat-purchase rate from our customers. That’s the most important thing to me. We want people to love, remember and return to the wines we make. Happily, they do.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
In the vineyard, I never ask anyone to do something that I haven’t done myself.
Beyond the vineyard fences, we encourage a strong culture of belief in the mission, belonging to the project and creativity in what we do. We respect our team for their talents and work hard to nurture and mentor them. Their input is recognised and valued.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
Software is both a help and a time-sink. One has to balance. Firstly, the software has to work, we are ruthless about ditching software that either fails to be flexible enough for our needs or which requires too much input. Primary systems are weather-related, farming input related and accountancy plus a simple website/webshop.
Service providers like Woo Commerce and Stripe are game-changers and allow us to constantly and affordably upgrade functionality. Any software that makes me swear or isn’t intuitive for our customers gets ditched. We constantly look at what is available and changing so that we keep up.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
My key learning: build a team of people with the skills we need and trust them. Respect them, openly share with them. Have fun along the way.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Creativity. The sense of sovereignty. The ability to cut through the time-wasting, energy-sapping palaver that comes with large firms. The willingness to be judged by our actions and our products.
The positive feedback (and new friendships) from people who have become as passionate about our wines and our evolution as we are ourselves.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
- The mental isolation – it’s our responsibility at all times. There is no such thing as a day off.
- Red-tape/bureaucratic stress.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
Hmmmmm. Tricky question as I read very widely. Never listened to a podcast so that’s easy!
So inspiration sources: business reporting in the Times, Telegraph and Economist primarily. That old guru Marshall McLuhan “The Medium is the Message”. It’s a bit dated but still relevant. Marketing Warfare by Al Ries & Jack Trout.
Last but not least, a peer group of successful businesses that I can learn from and think about.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
We will continue to look at return on capital and backstop value whilst investing in our brand building and expansion. I like keeping the company small and agile, with strong partnerships and customer connections.