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Absenteeism on the Vineyard

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

Back a few posts ago I recounted one or two of the punchier encounters I'd had with vineyard owners during those tours of discovery that precede jumping in and investing in viticulture.

One of the themes the more vocal ones liked to come back to was the sheer all-encompassing obsession being a vigneron requires. A labour of love some call it; others (well, one individual) a death sentence. The death sentence man recounted with a blend of depressed resignation and glee how many owners had to pack it in after a few years out of sheer exhaustion, and those were the lucky ones who didn't die on the job.

Not only do you have to be there: present at all times lest the mildew (or deer, or badgers, or botrytis) strike in the night and overrun your vines, but you have to be physically all-in on the action breaking your back to get a never-ending list of agricultural tasks done.

Either that or you're a very rich investor who pays others to do the hard work.

They were right, to a point. Vineyards have a habit of surprising you when you're not there. I should know, because - foolishly maybe, or sensibly for my family life - we don't live on site. We have to commute to the vines from South East London. The work and childcare calendar doesn't always make it easy to be there every week. And the place misbehaves when it thinks the owners aren't watching.

That's especially true during May and June when the vines are just starting to grow but the grass and weeds are at their most vigorous. I left the place alone for a fortnight and good grief, when I returned it was like rainy season in the Savanna, grass up to your hips obscuring the rows, weeds earthing the entire length of the perimeter electric fence and sucking all the goodness away from the vines. One cut later, stupidly allowing an over-enthusiastic contractor to attempt undervine mowing (just don't), and it looked like rainy season in the Savanna after the wildebeest had passed through and bent half of the vine tutors.

But now I'm faced with a rather more awkward situation. Last week I fell and broke 4 ribs on my back, landing me in hospital for 3 days on a range of narcotics. As well as being extremely painful a rib injury pretty much renders all strenuous physical activity impossible. For that matter it renders emptying the dishwasher or putting on a pair of socks impossible.

How does that mix with managing a vineyard in peak growing season? Not well. It's peak growing season for the vines themselves of course, so they need regular tucking in and trimming. It's still active growing season for the inter-vine grasses, though past the early summer peak. And the weather conditions are currently ideal for both downy and powdery mildew, which can strike and then take over an entire field in a day. Downy Mildew likes warm nights and heavy rain (check). Powdery mildew likes cloud and humidity, and a breeze (check).

The only option is to rely on friends, neighbours and family to make a couple of visits, keep a watch out for nasty things and undertake some simple tasks like strimming and repairing the electric fence while contractors come in and spray. Kevin our local farmer just sent some reassuring pictures over.

But you can just about get away with that for one month in one season. It doesn't work long term. And this made me reflect on one of the oddities of English viticulture: it's traditionally a retirees' game. So many of the smaller vineyards in particular are retirement investments, by people who made their money in white collar jobs before settling down in the country.

There are of course other routes, increasingly so: farmers diversifying, and young people training for careers in vineyard management and viticulture. There are even one or two multi-generational winemaking families, something that's the norm on the continent. But nevertheless retirees still dominate.

Maybe that's why that vineyard owner was able to regale me with so many stories of people jacking it in through exhaustion. Say you invest in a vineyard at the age of 65. You have 5 years before you are properly up and running as a wine producer and selling bottles. By then you are 70. If you're lucky you have perhaps 10 years of productive activity left before you are likely to be too frail to keep it up. You're then faced with a choice of passing to the children (who may be uninterested) or selling up. Your buyer may or may not want to continue with the vineyard.

I started relatively early by viticultural standards, in my mid-40s. This gives me, with a following wind, 25 years of production before I need to start worrying about legacy. Almost the life of a vine in these days of trunk disease. But even that is subject to continuing good physical health. And that's not guaranteed, as I discovered when I tripped on the staircase last weekend.

The day before my accident I was chatting to my friend as I held a ladder for him while he painted an external wall in Totnes. He gave up a job in advertising to work in a range of activities down in the South West, including gardening and painting and decorating as well as continuing a long running role as a guerrilla gardener. He remarked at how vulnerable you are if you have a physical job. One awkward fall or difficult diagnosis and your career is over.

As it happened a young man holding a can of cider had just shouted to us from a park bench about how he'd been close to qualifying as a heating engineer when he was diagnosed with "stiff person syndrome", which made him instantly uninsurable. Career out of the window, hope destroyed and straight on to the drink.

I realised how lucky I am to have an office job that can be done from anywhere, and can be carried on despite almost any physical injury. Many don't have that luxury. Throughout most of human history, once you got injured you were no longer useful to the community.

The same with viticulture today. It's a physical job requiring fitness and good health, and constant presence. Vines don't like their owners to be absent. It doesn't lend itself to broken bones. So wish me luck for a quick recovery.

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