BERGERAC, France, June 22 (UPI) -- When you check through the index of the venerable wine enthusiasts' bible, "Le Guide Hachette des Vins," a number of wine-producer names stand out. Not the expected Rothschilds or Roderer or Krug. The list is sprinkled surprisingly with a number of obviously British names. Most unexpected among them is that of Patricia Atkinson.
Perched on her tractor in workman jacket with tousled blond hair, she looks like a rural version of Ursula Andress. "Le Guide" waxes lyrical over her Clos d'Yvigne vineyard, which produces more than 70,000 bottles of wine a year from a vineyard in southwest France.
But less than 15 years ago, she was a high-flying public-relations representative for an international bank based in London.
Then her children went off to university, and at age 40 she decided with her financial consultant husband it was a good moment to live out what most other people reserve as fantasy musings. They left London for a complete change of life and a search for the perfect house in France. A year later they came upon it, near Bergerac in the Dordogne and surrounded by 4.5 hectares of not very good vines.
Then almost immediately her husband fell dreadfully ill. Instead of the idyll they had envisioned supported by his consultancy work, she spent her time at his hospital bedside while their savings drained away.
With no more obvious alternative, she turned to the vineyard to save it, resolving to restore the dilapidated vines and transform the land into a moneymaking enterprise. A brave project for someone who didn't have a word of French and knew nothing about wine-making.
But her neighbors rallied to this blond Boadicea. And armed with a dictionary and their advice, she learned from them how to drive a tractor, prune vines and keep pests at bay. In the very first year she faced a formidable frost that killed off a huge percentage of the early buds, the departure of a skilled worker who had given her much of her training and support, and that of her husband, who, on his recovery, decided he was better off in England.
Atkinson, now committed to her vineyard, opted to remain in France. Two years after she had set her sights on restoring the vines, she produced several thousand bottles of wine. Samples of her reds and whites were shipped to a friend in England who attempted to interest restaurants and wine stores. And at last an order for more arrived from a major British wine merchant.
Realizing she was now in serious business, she took herself off on wine-tasting courses and discovered to her surprise she had an unusually sophisticated nose and palette. It was so much appreciated by wine connoisseurs that she was invited by the Bergerac wine-tasting team to join them to judge which wines would merit the "appellation controlée" label.
Her estate is now 21 hectares large, with-two thirds of her production exported to the United Kingdom.
"Le Guide Hachette des Vins" has described Le Clos d'Yvigne's Le Petit Prince 1998, to which it gave a star, confirming the success of the vineyard. It gave it another star for its 1997 vintage of Côtes de Bergerac and awarded the Clos d'Yvigne's late 1998 harvest two stars. "Another indisputable heart stopper," it declared. "Don't wait," it advised, "for the wine to age at the vineyard. There is little enough, and 65 percent of the bottles leave for the U.K.!"
If winemaking were not sufficient to occupy her, Atkinson has also found time to write a book about her experiences, "The Ripening Sun," published by Century in April 2003 and about to be released in paperback.
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