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Living the Life in a Chateau VineyardAnyone who has watched TV programmes about escaping to a Chateau in France to follow their heart for a new life will be fascinated by the Feely family’s story.
They were one of our very first clients and moved to France 14 years ago to renovate a chateau in the Dordogne. Chateau Feely is now a thriving – and award-winning - organic vineyard with a wine school and accommodation. We caught up with Caro Feely to find out how she and her family are getting on.
Has moving to France lived up to expectations?
We are passionate about organic farming, wine and France so it is the perfect place for us. We moved for a quieter life but in fact we probably work harder than we ever did but we love what we do. We also have had a lot more adventure and excitement than we expected - on the down side farm accidents and on the upside winning top awards for our wine tours, accommodation and wines.
We miss friends and family and I miss the city sometimes (we lived in Dublin so the change to rural France was quite a big one) but we have many visitors for the Chateau Feely wine school, the accommodation and the award wining Chateau Feely Organic wine.
Each time I experience traffic congestion around Bordeaux I remember one of the reasons it is better to be in Saussignac where rush hour is two cars and a bicycle. It is funny that the word you used was expectations because my first book is called 'Grape Expectations'.
It is a memoir of our first 3 years in France and gives a great sense of what our expectations were relative to the reality at the start.
What one piece of advice would you give to anyone thinking of renovating a property in France?
Like any project, be clear about what you want to do before you start. Get to know the contractors you plan to use and do proper research on them before signing up. In my second book Saving our Skins I write about the two large renovations we did 5 years after buying Chateau Feely. For one specific thing - I always put the date required for completion on any devis (quote) that I sign.
How easy was it to pick up the language and communicate with contractors and the authorities during your project?
I had done French at school and then a year of night classes at the Alliance Francaise in Dublin. Those helped at the start but being here and having to communicate in French was what made all the difference. I now give full day wine classes in French and am reasonably fluent.
How have your children benefited from growing up in France and what is family life like?
Sophia and Ellie are both fully bilingual and are learning a third language at school. A big plus is public transport to get to school so we don't need to drive back and forth. We walk up to the bus stop where they take the bus to school.
The upside is we are here for our daughters when they come home since we work at home. The downside is we are always open and working since we live at our business. It is difficult to divide our professional from our private lives.
What do you love about the area where you and your family live?
There are beautiful walks, incredible historic towns like Bergerac and St Emilion, excellent food and wine and great markets, and the main city of Bordeaux with international schools, the Cité du Vin (wine city) and airport isn't too far down the road.
Where did your passion for wine originate from and how easy has it been to establish your own organic vineyard?
Sean's grandparents were winegrowers in South Africa and I shared a house with a master of wine when I first worked as an economist in Johannesburg. When we met it was a shared passion and we dreamed of going wine farming some time in the future.
We had student loans to pay off so it wasn’t happening anytime soon. When we moved to Ireland in 1998 we visited France on a wine holiday and fell in love with the place. Seven years later we found our dream property on my-french-house.com and our dream came true.
Many people dream about running their own gite business in France – what challenges have you faced?
Tourism is changing fast with the digital giants like Airbnb and Booking.com dominating the scene. We prefer to deal direct with clients who come via our website. It's important to offer differentiation and we are fortunate in this respect because we have our organic farm, a large salt water swimming pool and amazing views. There is a lot of competition. It is important to register with your local tourist office and check what norms and declarations you need to meet.
Are there any tips you would give to anyone thinking about starting a business in France?
Be sure to understand the exact details of the social charges you will have to pay. In France, even if you are not earning income you will be liable for social charges which can be substantial so it is an important cost to factor in.
Would you do it all again and if so is there anything you’d do differently?
Absolutely! It has been an incredible journey. If there is an area to improve I think we could have done better on our work life balance - it's a work in progress for us like many others. It’s a theme that comes through strongly in my latest book Glass Half Full , where I take up yoga as one step towards this.
Many thanks Caro & Sean for sharing your story with us. Bravo et Santé, to many more happy years, successes and books! What you have achieved is amazing, I love following your newsletters and stories. Patrick.
If you too are considering buying a chateau or estate or vineyard in France, we’d love to discuss your plans and requirements. Contact us with details about your project as we are sometimes able source ‘exclusive off market’ chateaux and lifestyle business opportunities.