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The waiting season

I popped over to the vineyard yesterday for a few hours. You know, to “check on it”. It’s a regular ritual. Once arrived I made myself busy. Donned my wellies and squelched across to the field tap to fill a large water bottle for the kettle in the site caravan. Connected the leisure battery. Wandered over to the electric fence unit to find the solar panel blown over, the charge controller malfunctioning and the fence not working. I seem spend as much time dealing with electrical faults on this vineyard as I do managing the vines. Strolled up and down a few rows to see what the buds were up to (too much is the answer: all puffed up and ready to be zapped in the April frosts). And I collected a few stray wind-blown rabbit guards.

After that I sat in the caravan and had a cup of tea.

There’s not much to do on the vineyard in the winter. The vines are dormant. The grass and weeds aren’t yet growing. There are no leaves to strip or shoots to select or diseases to spray for. The big job is pruning and tying down, but I’ve done about a third of the vineyard and this year I’ve got help in for the rest. It’s mainly waiting.

Viticulture involves a lot of waiting. In fact, the first 4 or more years of a vineyard’s life are one big wait. I first saw the land for sale at Little Bursted in 2018. Bought it in 2020 during Covid. Planted in 2022. We’re now into the third growing season and may get a small harvest this autumn, or we may drop most of the grapes. Only in 2025 can I expect the first proper harvest. The grapes then go to the winery and, seeing as we are focusing mainly on sparkling wine, there are at least another 2 years to wait, probably substantially longer, before the wine is labelled and sold.

Viticulture, like most farming, is a rather extreme example of what business commentators call Patient Capital. You don’t enter the industry to make a quick buck. Indeed, many don’t really enter it to make a buck at all. I’m sure you all know the “how do you make a small fortune” gag about planting a vineyard. Vine growers not only have to wait years to make any kind of return; they are also making long term bets on several unknowns: planting a vineyard here means going long on climate change, but the right sort of climate change without too many of the bad bits like late frosts, pests and drought. It is also a bet that people will continue to drink alcohol. My children’s generation seem distinctly less interested than we were.

Even in this patient world the ruthless logic of cashflow is hard to escape. English wines benefit from time in tank and bottle but are often released prematurely because it’s difficult to lock up tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds of working capital in racks of bottles unless you have very deep pockets. The temptation to sell early is too great. Cashflow is why you don’t see much use of reserve wines and non-vintage sparkling in England and Wales.

The reason most sparkling here is vintage is because each harvest needs to be made, bottled and sold to pay for the next year’s batch.  

Nevertheless, patience is certainly more of an attribute of the wine industry than many others. On the continent wine production is typically a multi-generational family affair. Even the large wine houses are often a century old or more. Our domestic industry is still young but we already have our handful of winemaking dynasties, and there will be more. Its participants are increasingly taking a long-term approach to land management too. Putting life back into the soil, encouraging biodiversity, moving away from the traditional neat and tidy lawn-like vineyard to something a little wilder.

We don’t have enough patient capital in this country. The UK is a financialised, high turnover economy that favours short term yield over long-term returns. It sometimes seems the dream of every young entrepreneur is to get their business to a certain size then sell out to a US trade buyer or Private Equity.  Our rates of business investment are woefully low compared with our OECD peers. So, as sure as night follows day, is our productivity growth.

But the tendency is as true of the public sector as it is of business. Whether it’s cancelled high speed rail lines or crumbling schools and hospitals, half-finished IT implementations or regularly sliced and diced MOD projects, we are a nation of asset sweaters.

What’s the moral of this story, that we should approach Britain’s economic challenges like we’re planting a vineyard? Probably not. Plenty of vineyards get grubbed up after a few years of trying and failing to make a return. Viticulture in Britain could do with a decent injection of the profit motive.

No, I’m just placing my current waiting game and the mild impatience that comes with it into some sort of grand arc of history narrative to make myself feel better.

And for now, hush little vines, it's not yet time to wake up.

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