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Thinking Outside the (Wine) Box!

I had the pleasure in meeting Rachel Taylor from Keycare at an event in Leeds during the Christmas build up when women business owners and family businesses were among the topics of a lively conversation. 

Rachel’s passion and commitment in leading the transition of her business to the next level along with her CSR ethos – which saw her and four Keycare employees sleep rough last September and raise £1,600 for homeless charity Simon On The Streets – struck a chord with me. 

Rachel’s beliefs and achievements are reflected in some of the inspirational women we work with who own castles. They include Felicity Cunliffe Lister who has transformed Swinton Park and who, in November last year, spearheaded a ‘cook off’ at Swinton Park’s cookery school to support Help for Heroes. 

In her guest blog, Rachel gives a fascinating insight into more tenacious and inspirational women and their journeys as producers of fantastic wines:  


In preparation for the Keycare Directors’ Christmas Dinner, which was being held at my home near Harrogate, my mind turned to drink! I was fortunate enough to have the talented chef Tim Stokes cooking the meal for us and our Chairman Mark Jackson, a keen oenophile, had kindly offered to bring something “special” for the main course so I was to choose the wine to accompany the canapés and starters.

In the countdown to the festive season I, like the rest of the UK, was being bombarded with adverts from the major supermarkets with their festive offerings but I wanted to have some fun choosing the wine and decided to think outside the (wine) box. Keycare is a family business that was started in 1977 by my late father, Geoffrey Parker. As the only family member now on our board and the only woman director at that, I decided to explore the world of female wine producers to see what they had to offer.

In the hugely patriarchal wine world I came across feisty women such as Susana Balbo from Argentina who is renowned as the Queen of Malbec. Susana became the first Argentinian woman to be hired as a consultant to winemakers worldwide and in 1999 she achieved her dream to produce her own wines at Dominio del Plato, Mendoza. 

Through the company’s success she has created a charitable foundation to make a valuable contribution to her local area through healthcare, education and community projects. This very much chimed with the founding spirit and values at Keycare, which, since 1977 has always believed in giving something back through wide-ranging CRS programmes.  

Canadian born Norma Ratcliffe became passionate about wine through holidays in America and student days in France. When she met her husband who had a farm in South Africa she saw the potential to create a vineyard there. She studied oenology in the evenings when her children were small and in 1984 produced her first bottles of Warwick Cabernet. Norma has since been responsible for chairing the judging panel for the South African Woman Winemaker of the Year Awards and also sponsors young black winemakers on exchange programmes with France and the United States.  

2014 has been a good year for Keycare and I was in the mood to celebrate so the evening had to start with champagne! The Taittinger’s were a family of wine merchants who in 1932 bought Chateau de la Marquetterie in the Champagne region of France. Since then the champagne the family produces there has become one of France’s top marques.   

Virginie Taittinger worked in the family business for 21 years before deciding to strike out on her own in 2006 when her father left. I had heard her interviewed by Evan Davis on Radio 4’s business programme Bottom Line some months before and was struck by her courage and determination in making the tough decision to make her very own champagne.

Virginie says that great champagne is like a distinguished guest whose presence is always felt, even without trying to be the centre of attention and that opening a bottle is to partake in a moment of happiness. With that in mind I promptly ordered a case of Virginie T champagne online as it is supplied directly from the vineyard. 

Now for a white wine to serve with our King Prawn and Crayfish starter. Katie Jones is an English woman, originally from Ashby de la Zouch (which sounds French but is actually in Leicestershire) who spent 20 years working in the wine industry in the Languedoc-Rousillon area of France before discovering a small vineyard clinging to the side of the Maury valley in 2009.  

As the French would say, it was a coup de foudre and she decided to leave the comfort of her established job and buy it. She swapped her business suit for jeans and trainers (wellies in winter) and, with the help of Liz and Bob, her mum and dad, realised her dream of producing her own wines. Katie now makes four wines, Blanc, Rouge, Fitou and a Muscat.

Like anyone running their own business she has experienced highs and lows. Possibly one of her darkest moments was coming back from a few days away at a trade fair to find that someone had committed a deliberate act of vandalism and drained the wine from one of her tanks. It is testimony to her sheer determination and single mindedness that she did not let this setback deter her. She says “when you love what you’re doing, you simply get stuck in.” Her wines have been described by Jancis Robinson, wine critic and journalist as “underrated gems” and the legendary wine writer Robert Parker has awarded them scores of 90+.  

I found Katie’s can-do spirit inspiring and bought a case of her Domaine Jones Blanc online directly from her vineyard.The case arrived within 10 days of ordering and I was most impressed to get an email from Katie saying she had personally checked with the carrier that I had received my wine. Now that’s what I call good customer service, something that Keycare has been passionate about since it began.

The Keycare Directors’ dinner was a huge success. Tim looked after us so well with totally delicious food, expertly cooked and presented. I had used Tim for a previous function 10 years ago and had been very impressed - I subsequently discovered he had been a past contestant on MasterChef. The wines were hugely enjoyable and I really loved taking a somewhat tangential approach to choosing them. Through it I discovered a wealth of talented women making their names in the world of wine, demonstrating tenacity, passion, courage and confidence, all essential qualities when you run your own business.

Rachel Taylor is a director and shareholder of Keycare which recovers and replaces lost or stolen keys for customers of household names and blue chip organisations.

Swinton Park Castle