Adapt and Grow -
Creating a family legacy in lockdown
Jayne Oliphant-Thompson fulfilled a lifelong dream when she bought Kenton Park Estate with her husband in 2016. Now a boutique vineyard, bar and eatery with lodge accommodation, the pandemic presented the family a unique series of challenges, but also exciting opportunities.
Jayne Oliphant-Thompson was running an international consultancy with her husband. The serial entrepreneur had also just sold her lifestyle business and was on the cusp of achieving a long-held ambition:
“We had this dream to own a winery. We had been looking for about five years without much success, so when Kenton Park Estate came up in 2016, I was immediately on the phone to the agent. Luckily, we managed to sell some office space we owned and accept an offer on our house; everything came together at once.”
Right at the start, Jayne planted 15,000 extra vines on the estate, without being an expert in either horticulture, or winemaking: “A good lesson I learned from the beginning, is how helpful people are if you just ask.
"Our lake kept flooding and a local groundworks specialist came in to help channel a water borehole, he was fantastic and has worked with us ever since. We also got help from a local engineering firm with heavy equipment we needed to buy, and crucially, maintain, no one ever tells you how often things break."
“They say: ‘no one gets into wine making actually knowing what is involved, or you wouldn’t do it.’ I can attest to that insight, but perhaps not the sentiment; knowing what I do now, I am not sure I would do anything differently.
"It is amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it.” Jayne always wanted to own a vineyard, recording ideas for her life desires in notebooks in an annual brainstorming session and retaining a library of ideas to refer back to, breaking them down into a vision and achievable steps. She keeps pushing forward with ideas to find a way and is optimistic as well as hard working.
“Always have a dream. I went on courses, listened to podcasts which can be very inspiring, read books on winemaking, design, and marketing. You just have to surround yourself with the right knowledge.”
Building a business legacy
Alongside the dream of owning a vineyard, Jayne was inspired to take on the challenge after trekking to Mount Everest base camp: “Firstly, it was the hardest thing I had ever done, plenty of fit and healthy people had to be airlifted off the mountain.
Altitude sickness can affect anyone. Whenever I am having a tough day on the farm, on the ground pulling out weeds, I always think ‘this is not as hard as Everest!’ I have had my adventure and now my feet are firmly planted with the vines.
“Secondly, only a day after we left Nepal, there was the huge earthquake. Thousands of people died, and we would have been in the thick of it, in fact we were due to be there when it happened.”
Jayne’s mother passed away at the age of 56 – when Jayne was 30. The near miss in Nepal focussed her attention on her own future: “I wanted the Kenton Park Estate project to be a legacy for my children, a business that they can grow – and love - for years.
"Yes, this is a vineyard, but that is not the core business. I wanted to teach my children how to diversify; to create a business that can stand the test of time. At Kenton Park, we wanted to create a place where people can relax and find inspiration from the environment around them; an experience that touches their heart, stimulates all their senses and perhaps leads them to see their passions or priorities in a new light.”
The effect of the Covid-19 lockdown on a family business
After years of hard work, day and night by Jayne and her family, the estate had not formally opened when the pandemic hit. It wasn’t just Jayne’s plans to open the estate to the public that were thrown off by lockdown, but other business concerns as well:
“My husband had been flying to the US regularly for work, but suddenly, we had to move things online almost overnight. Keeping the consultancy going through the pandemic was a huge undertaking in itself.”
With the hospitality trade effectively shut down, the family also had to change their focus while still maintaining the winery and estate. They set about designing much of the brand and customer experience you see today:
“We could only do what we could do. We put our efforts into making a new website, creating a brochure, building our social media presence, and working on new product lines.”
Jayne explains the vision:
“We are a very outdoors family. On our last family holiday before the pandemic, we went on the most incredible safari in South Africa, and while we obviously do not have lions and giraffes here, we wanted it to feel equally as connected to nature. We saw some Alliums planted in a Chelsea Flower Show garden in 2019 which inspired our planting scheme.”
“We wanted people tasting wine in the vineyards, meeting the animals, seeing the cider apple orchard, and tasting gin in the herb garden. We also wanted to incorporate cocktail making and whisky tasting, finishing off with a locally-sourced deli platter to share.”
Even as we spoke the new Shepherd Huts were arriving so guests can have a unique stay after sharing some food and sampling the delights of the vineyard.
Their hard work has paid off. They opened the estate to the public last summer as Lockdown 1.0 restrictions lifted. They had already launched a brand of gin; they begun wine tastings and vineyard tours, opened a guest lodge, and started a small holding/farm with the acquisition of Indian Runner ducks, rare breed Swiss Valais Blacknose sheep (both to help weeding in the vineyard) and Pygmy goats:
“We could not believe how quickly things took off. The feedback from guests has been incredible, we were inundated with booking requests.”
Lockdown brought challenges with the estate closing to guests during the second and third lockdowns, but there was plenty of work to do in the background:
“To be honest, we would have preferred to be open, but I had so many ideas, there was so much to work on behind the scenes that we were able to make the most of the space we are lucky to have and the time”.
“As a family we divided the tasks using the time to renovate the garden, grounds and develop the vineyard tours, creating content for the website and brochure, using social media to generate followers, so we would have the resources in place when we could invite people to come and dine outside.”
Building a resilient family business
Everyone plays their part on the estate. Their eldest son Ben manages the Estate and runs all the Wine Safari Tours. Their son, Josh does all the maintenance, and works on the vineyards. Daughter, Sienna works in the kitchen and helps with the catering. But they have more help too:
“What’s been lovely is that my sons’ partners are also heavily involved. Each of them has their own specific area. The only mistake I made really is not having more children to be part of the business!”
In 2021, the business has gone from strength-to-strength:
“We are working flat out every day, we’ve got events booked right through until 2022. The summer has been busy but already we are looking ahead to creating a winter wonderland at Christmas; next year we want to start wine-tasting boat tours, producing more of our own products; we are also branching out into wellness with a special wellness retreat for over-50's – we are even working on an anti-ageing serum product from pinot noir grapes!”
For Jayne, business resilience is the ability to commit to an idea and see it through:
“Sometimes the family think I am a bit mad – I said I wanted to make gin, they were unconvinced. We now sell it behind the bar, and we have an online shop. It is selling well. I am just passionate about thinking up new ideas.”
Jayne’s short-term goal is to finally take a well-earned rest after a remarkably busy 18 months: heading back to Chamonix in the French Alps.
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