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In this country, with a couple of notable exceptions, growing grapes is not something you inherit from a long family line of vignerons. Nor is it simply something you fall into, the local industry that your mates also work in. Here you make a conscious choice to plant a vineyard and you are almost always the first in your family or social circle to have done so.

Having made that choice you then embark on a journey of discovery as you come to terms with what it takes actually to grow grapes and make them into wine in a hyper-marginal climate. It's not a journey where you should expect warm words of encouragement from those who ventured into the industry before you. You should expect most people, in a variety of different ways, to tell you not to do it.

I recently went through one of the rites of passage for a British vineyard owner, the one week intensive principles of vine growing course run by Plumpton college a few times a year. Not having the luxury of a couple of years' career break the full BSc in viticulture was not an option so a week had to do.

The course is a rapid immersion in all the things that can go wrong in a vineyard. It's a distilled essence of the ultimate truth underlying viticulture in the North East Atlantic: you should not do it.

On day one we learned about climate and site selection. The first thing each year that can destroy your crop (unless the deer or rabbits get there first) is spring frost. The surest protection against frost damage is to select a frost free site. Everything else is ruinously expensive. I mentioned before that our site is frost prone. So ruinously expensive it is.

Get through the frost, then rain or cold weather during flowering will lose you most of the potential crop. This is England. Rain or cold weather during flowering is not a rare occurrence.

From day 2 onwards we really got to the fun part as we started to explore vine diseases. Guess what: we are not only planting a species in a climate it didn't evolve in, but the species we mainly plant - vitis vinifera - has no natural immunity to two devastating infections, downy and powdery mildew. Plenty of evidence across the vineyards of the South East this summer. Evade the mildew by, basically, drowning the poor plants in a greater or lesser amount of more or less toxic chemicals (organic or conventional, you're still spraying), and you still have to look out for bunch rot later in the season, or the tiny spotted wing drosophila nibbling into your grapes and rotting them from the inside. In due course trunk diseases will probably finish off whole vines too.

Lets say every now and again you're lucky: the frost holds off, it's sunny and warm in June, and your decent sized crop escapes mildew and botrytis to ripen some clean, tasty looking fruit. Well congratulations, you have just grown a delicious treat for the flocks of starlings and pheasants who'll delight in the Autumn spread you have laid out. Unless of course you invest in ruinously expensive and time consuming bird netting.

Now try to find the workers to do everything. You know, the ones who aren't here any more because of Covid and Brexit.

Still, I listened and learned from the gurus at Plumpton, along with my varied classmates. Some had a head start already being farmers. They were no doubt less fazed by the tales of forlorn battles against the odds of the weather, pests and bureaucracy. They were probably less terrified than I was during the tractor health and safety session. That one nearly finished me off. All I and my fellow non-farmers had to go on before our week-long induction was having watched Clarkson's Farm.

For those without the time to spend a week at Plumpton there is plenty of advice on offer from owners of established vineyards. We've visited many and learned a lot. Nobody tells you it's easy. The style varies from a warm welcome with mild words of caution to a full blown set-piece rant. One particular favourite of some (male) growers is to open with a salvo of probing questions seeking to expose your naivete. In a recent classic of the genre we reached the moment of rock bottom with the morbid revelation that many people meet an early grave after a decade or two attempting to make wine, beaten down by the climate, bureaucracy and unending toil like so many Southern English Jeans de Florette.

All with the best of intentions of course. Bring the green young new entrant face to face with the harsh reality. Then and only then can they make an informed decision about their new career choice. You've seen the Hollywood interview scene. After the ritual humiliation they warm to their subject matter. You discover that they actually love what they do. You end up buying a case or two of their rather good wine.

This is the nub of it. We don't inherit viticulture from a long family line. We choose it. It's not, let's be honest, the most financially rewarding or low-maintenance investment of our money or time. The choice, from what I learned at Plumpton and from years of vineyard visiting, seems to be between working 7-day weeks foregoing any future holidays, and chucking wads of cash into a deep, flint-studded money pit. Or a mixture of both.

But that's true of all agriculture. We choose to enter it for other reasons, same as people born into farming choose to stay for reasons other than money or an easy life. Same as mountaineers who willingly put themselves at risk of death "because it's there".

So despite the dire warnings, the risk of reduced life expectancy, the dead certainty of financial ruin, we're going to do it anyway. Because if we produce really good wine it'll be almost worth it.

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Julia Sarson
Julia Sarson
Sep 20, 2021

A realistic assessment, but it does make you wonder why you bother. Like growing anything, just like my allotment, you get used to realising that no year is ever perfect, something usually goes well and many things badly. You keep going though, perhaps like the golfer who remembers the perfect shot and lives in hope that the next one will be even better (it rarely is). I presume the picture is of a diseased vine, funnily enough my own Black Hamburg vine leaves look very similar - but then I’m not a vigneron. Keep the faith as long as the ruinously expensive bit doesn’t impinge on my pension!

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