Staggering Into Summer

After the excitement of our surprise planting last week, it has all been quite a bit calmer in the vineyard this week. With the exception of a couple of showery bumps in the road, the weather is steadily improving as we make our way into June. The Baltic winds have receded, the torrential rain has abated and we are able to stride out into the vineyard in something approximating summer attire. And it’s probably about time that the weather sorted itself out, as my winter socks are now well and truly worn out through excess use and were ceremonially thrown in the bin last week. Oh, and the cold weather isn’t doing the vines much good either.

Wandering out into the vineyards until a couple of weeks ago left us worrying about whether the vines were going to start growing at any point in 2013; one can now tell from the front door that it is the business end of the season. Closer inspection reveals that there are now proper shoots, with actual individual leaves, on all of our varieties. And it is even possible to see little flowers on some of those shoots, which in itself is a big relief after the floods and pestilence (downy mildew) of “Summer” 2012.

You may at this point be wondering why we would be worrying about the awful weather last year affecting the vines this year. It’s because one horrible season is not only able to make a mess of one year, under the correct circumstances it can actually foul up two. As the number of flowers on the shoots are set in the previous season (by a process that I do not really understand) rainfall at the wrong time of year can cause the vine to have a reduced number of flowers (and therefore grapes) in the following year. As most of the shoots still aren’t long enough to have obvious flowers on them for us to look at, we aren’t yet in a position to ascertain how much wine we are likely to be making in 2013*. And as we don’t yet have any handy staff, or children that can count past ten, it probably wouldn’t make much difference if we could count them.

*Whether or not you make lots of wine is obviously weather dependant. If you have millions of flowers all over your super healthy vines, and then it starts raining all over those lovely flowers when they are open, the net result is the same as having no flowers in the first place.

The other big advantage with the weather remaining dry is that we have been able to tidy up the new bit of the vineyard. You may have gathered from last week’s entry that the land wasn’t exactly carefully prepared before we had it filled with vines, so it has been important to do as much of the tidying as possible after they are in. As the planting machine ploughs a furrow into the land (which it then backfills after sticking the vines into the soil), the unprepared land doesn’t cause the vines problems as they establish themselves, but the machine left a bit of a mess in its wake. We had the same problem at the far end of South Field – where the land had been ploughed across the hill and the vines planted up and down it – and we were a little concerned at the time. Naturally these vines are still the most vigorous in the whole estate. I expect that everyone will be planting in a similarly chaotic manner in future. And I will be given some sort of medal or award for brilliantly and carefully devising this system.

The first job was to dig up the vines that had been buried underneath the enormous clumps of soil and grass that were backfilled up to (and on top of) the planted vines. This is admittedly a small hitch with my brilliant vine establishment system, but you can easily find most of the vines beneath said clumps of grass and replace any with spare vines while crossing your fingers and hoping that two don’t grow out of the same hole. Once you have found your vines, it is essential to protect them. You may have noticed that the lump of wax placed by the nursery onto the top part of the vines is no barrier to the millions of rabbits that want nothing more than to eat them. Once the canes are in and the vine guards are on, it’s time to get those cable ties through the guards, or I will be chasing them all over the vineyard ad nauseam and complaining about having to do it even more ad nauseam. Then a quick whizz over the powder dry top soil with the power harrow and the land looks like it was properly prepared and no one will ever know about my brilliant planting scheme.

The Two Day Vineyard

It’s 4.45 AM on Tuesday morning (not yesterday, the one before that) and I am eyeing the alarm clock, hoping that the time indicated is sort of a mistake and that the alarm is not about burst into life, waking up both of the children with the dulcet tones of whatever is on Radio 4 in the middle of the night. A glimpse at my watch confirms my worst fears and I decide that there is nothing for it. I am going to have to leave the impossibly cosy confines of our bedroom, unplug the alarm clock – lest the children (and therefore Lucy) share my pain – and stagger into the kitchen to prepare some much needed coffee.

My steaming hot mug of medicine consumed, I make my way to the shed behind the winery where the tractor lives. Then I turn around, go back to the house and spend the next five minutes trying to find the tractor key that I left in a very safe place the night before. Key in hand, I return to the tractor shed, cross my fingers and am delighted to hear the faithful old girl rumble into life for the millionth time and to see that there is now enough light for me to navigate safely to our furthest vineyard. There is more than enough dew around to make the journey very exciting indeed, but nevertheless, I am sat at the top of a hill in our tractor, power harrow (with is sort of a plough) attached and ready to start assaulting the ground at a little after quarter past five. And for the moment, this seems like an excellent idea.

At a little after quarter to six, I am driving the poor old Ford Mondeo across our still decidedly dewy middle field because I have stalled the tractor by attempting to chop up an enormous pile of weeds and soil with harrow (the harrow is attached to the tractor’s engine). The tractor has helpfully stalled at the bottom of the hill, and I briefly entertain the idea of driving down it in the car before deciding that discretion is the better part of valour. I pinch the battery out of the car to get the tractor – which is now obstinately refusing to start itself – going again, so that I may continue to collect massive piles of weeds from the uninhabited end of our vineyard.

A whole thirty minutes later I have admitted defeat, am dragging around enough grass in the harrow to feed a heard of cattle and have returned home in the tractor and am looking for someone to order a bacon sandwich from.

To what do we owe this bout of temporary insanity? An excess of sunshine? A bang on the head? Nope. A surprise vineyard. We had decided that we were going to plant some more vineyard about 24 hours before, when I received an email from some friends who had just planted a vineyard at the other end of the valley. They had been unable to stuff the number of vines that they had ordered into the patch of land that they had prepared and had 1500 over. It also transpired that the planting team were still in the area and that 1500 vines would neatly fill the end of our South Field vineyard that had been standing fallow since we planted the rest of the field in 2007 (we had the opposite problem to our friends and had ordered too few for our patch of land). That evening, myself and the farmer that we originally bought the land from had been trying – without much luck – to crack through the thoroughly dry and solid top six inches of soil to remove the weeds and allow the planting people to work their magic.

The planting people duly arrived just before we went to bed, and once they had taken a look, were dubious about their chances of being able to plant anything in our huge patch of weeds. Unabashed, they left their enormous tractor in the field and promised to return in the morning for another look before moving on to Hampshire if it still looked as bad in the daylight. I suspect that in reality they were looking for somewhere other than the Newton Abbot Premier Inn to park their massive tractor, but we were grateful for them giving it their best possible attempt. We had also promised to do everything we could to expedite their planting of our new vineyard (namely messing about in the tractor at the crack of dawn).

When Ben (not this Ben, the other one that has the new vineyard) arrives the following morning with vines, I have had a go in the tractor, given up and am being consoled by Lucy, a sausage sandwich and yet another mug of coffee. But Ben has an idea! He could ask the chap that prepared his land to come and plough in front of the planting people. The man is called and promises to come on the double, by which time the planting people have arrived and are presented with the good news.

Thankfully they are are late – astonishing when you consider that they are in fact German planting people – which is a good thing as our man is going to be a while attaching his plough to his equally enormous tractor. The delay gives them the opportunity to tell us that the big plough will leave the soil much too rough for them to plant directly into, so we must have it broken up further. I call our tame farmer and fire up our our tractor, which is now looking even more puny and ancient. When the first vine is planted, there are no less than four tractors whizzing around the couple of acres nestled at the end of South Field.

And a couple of hours after that, I am stood next to Ben in the pouring rain watching the last row of vines going in and enjoying a victory cigarette that I have just cadged off him to mark the occasion. A brief inspection reveals that, although the land wasn’t properly prepared, virtually all of the vines are in the correct root-down, top-up orientation and that the field has been neatly filled with vines. So sudden was the transformation, it still comes as a surprise when we walk into the field. No matter, I’ll be picking up vine guards again next week and the world will be back to normal.