Vitamin Pimms

Happy Easter! One more week into spring and things could not be lovelier in our bit Devon. As there has been an entirely blue sky parked overhead for the better part of the week, with shirt sleeve style temperatures, the vines have started to get a move on, the entirely saturated soil appears to finally be drying out properly, and the clan Huxbear are utterly chock full of vitamin D and, let’s be honest, Pimms.

I absolutely love this time of year. A day’s sunshine is still that much of a novelty that it seems like a rare and precious treat, as opposed to the summer, when one expects the weather to be clement and complains if it isn’t. Unless your vineyard man took the previous year off, the weeds are still under control as they haven’t really started growing yet; and in our own vineyard, the dandelions that precede the most astonishing display of buttercups have just started to push through in the rows between the vines. And it’s not just your feet being stung by a stray nettle that you need not worry about, for the accursed horseflies*, that are a resident fixture in the middle of the growing season, are nowhere to be seen. All in all, it’s pretty much perfect for vineyards and vineyard related activities at the moment.

*As the only edible thing for 95% of the time in our fields (and those surrounding it) is, er, me, I’m fairly confident that I am currently supporting a breeding population of horseflies all by myself.

Having enjoyed a week or so of doing some new jobs that weren’t absolutely pressing after finishing the winter pruning, the new season’s work is starting to accumulate. If I’m being honest this is actually considerably more relaxing for a man of my organisational abilities (i.e. none, and Lucy has to go to work occasionally so can’t be on hand to tell me what to do). Some weeks ago we had a visit from an agronomist who is attached to the company that we buy our chemicals from. He had a look around the land and at some soil and leaf samples and then left. Promising to return with a brilliant scheme for forcing the vines to pull their collective finger out and make us so busy this autumn that we don’t have time to build a shed or decking or anything instead of picking millions of grapes.

Mercifully, our committed band of saintly pickers are as related to us as they are willing to work for food and wine, but this doesn’t mean that being extremely busy at harvest wouldn’t come as a welcome change. Other than the first one, when we were still building the winery and attempting make wine in it at the same time, which is an entirely different type of problem. No matter, after consulting his agronomist chums in more traditional wine making places, our man returned with a prescription for the vineyard. It includes spreading some goodness onto the soil to replace what has been washed off the land and into the river, along with spraying some more goodness directly on to them during the growing season.

And the net result of that is that I have just about a tonne of fertiliser to spread under the vines in the next couple of weeks. As we are extremely environmentally aware/too tight to buy a spreader (delete as appropriate), this means that I shall once again be doing the work of a machine and maintaining my streamlined profile. Joking aside, this is probably the best way of doing it as tractor mounted spreaders have a nasty habit of tossing the fertiliser here, there and everywhere, so you need to buy more of it. Which in turn means that there is more fertiliser to wash off and into the water courses (which is environmentally dubious, not to mention expensive). It also means that you can’t manually throw the fertiliser directly at the base of your vines, which means that you end up fertilising the weeds, which in turn means rather more strimmer time over summer than I care for.

We have also started to knock our super duper new posts in this week. I recall that I promised to tell you about our genius new treatment for vineyard posts the other week, and I now intend to elucidate. The pressure treated posts that come from most suppliers are rubbish. I’m told that this is because they aren’t allowed to use heavy metals in the gunk that they force into the wood, but Inspector Huxbear smells a rat. A mysterious new treatment has been invented that makes posts last for much longer (specifically, it actually works); all you have to do is spend twice the amount on them. I’m fairly confident that the blue stuff in the cheap ones is food dye and it is all part of an elaborate scheme to make us all buy expensive posts, but we won’t be falling for that.

As the posts invariably break at the point where they emerge from the soil, a company has produced a wrap around thing that you apply with a blow torch, which water proofs the offending area and prevents it from snapping. The catch? You can probably work out what the catch is, it’s not like there isn’t a theme here, yep, they are quite expensive, not to mention that they look really tricky to apply. Wouldn’t it be much easier if we were to water proof the bottom of the posts with special water proof paint that they use for drinking water tanks (so isn’t toxic)? And wouldn’t it be even better if that solution cost a mere 5p per post? Okay so it’s sub-Nobel laureate work and it’s labour intensive (that is also a bit of a theme), but it appears to be moderately fool proof. I shall keep you posted.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the generator. That’s not exactly a mistake as it has been proving problematic, but I have been calling in favours from everyone that I can think of and I think that we have a convoluted solution that will allow us to fire up the winery again. And I shall tell you all about it when I have rediscovered my sense of humour.

Generating Anniversaries

Today marks ten years of married life for us, so I’m under instructions to do something other than sit in front of a computer or stare vacantly at the constituent parts of a generator. I’m intend to nail down some computer/sofa time over the next seven days, so we will be back next week.

Three Whole Phases

I’ll confess to feeling slightly disappointed at returning energised from our brief Cornwallian adventure and expecting to drive into a field chock full of vines with foot long shoots, only to discover that things were still very much at the tiniest bit of green on every tenth vine stage. Can we blame this lack of activity on the hysterical white knuckle frost ride that we endured last week? The cold certainly seems the most likely candidate for causing the vines to universally stamp on the brakes with both rooty feet. Well, it’s either that or I have forgotten how long it takes for plants to grow since last year, either way, the difference is the same.

No matter, while enduring yet another white knuckle ride yesterday – attempting to pilot our falling to pieces (yet surprisingly resilient) pickup sideways across a slope in our (empty) middle field – I discovered that rain showers as opposed to frost are now very much the order of the day. As one might reasonably expect at the start of April, before six whole months of unbroken sunshine and lashings of rosé and barbecues on the decking.

And as the rain gives with one hand, it takes with the other. You may or may not recall that we have a reasonable amount of wine in the tank from a strange and difficult season last year, and that it remains temptingly delicious but infuriatingly unfiltered on account of the broken generator. This remains the case, but we are now taking great strides towards getting the wine out of the tank and into a bottle. We discovered that the self same rain that destroyed the roads and the railways (now fixed) of Devon (and much of my remaining sanity), had inveigled its way into the canopy thing of the winery generator, causing it to fail. In fairness, it’s as well that we didn’t discover this at the same time as the storms were remodelling the estate, as I’d probably be flogging copies of the Big Issue in a doorway in Exeter and vowing never to step foot on a vineyard ever again.

Ahem, moving on. We have two generators here, one that we use to top up the batteries that run the house (and winery lighting) when the solar panels and mostly useless wind turbine are unable to provide us with enough gratis energy, and another much larger one to provide the special three phase food that the machinery in the winery eats. Needless to say, the domestic generator is nearly as old as I am, was very cheap and has never caused us any problems and the winery one is much newer, cost exactly ten times the price and has been quite temperamental, before becoming absolutely dead.

Having taken some professional advice, it was clear that having it repaired was going to cost more than the old girl was worth. This left us with a few options for making enough special power to magically transport our wine into bottles and into the clutches of our adoring customers. We could sell the engine (that was still working) and buy a whole new generator. This was the most expensive option and, as it would be a second hand one, could fall to pieces at any time. A cheaper option would be to sell the old generator and find another one that would sit on the back of our tractor and would be powered by the tractor’s own engine. This would have the advantage of being new, but would require me to pull up the tractor and attach it every time that we wanted to turn something on in the winery. The final option was to buy this cheap alternator that I have just found on the internet and have a bash at making it work with the chap from down the road.

Having discounted the first option, Lucy and I mulled over the other two. A tractor attached generator would have the advantage of being mobile, so we could theoretically use it for the house if there was ever a problem with the venerable old girl that keeps the lights on. The flip side of that was that the tractor is even more venerable than the house generator. And, er, if you have read even one other entry in the never ending drama that is this electronic diary, there wasn’t even the slightest chance that I wasn’t going to rope someone into letting me have a bash at building a generator given half the chance. As an added bonus, I also get to build a little house for it (to keep the swinish rain at bay) on the side of the winery and have found a whole other person to help me with that. It doesn’t get much better than building two whole things.

Excellent news! With the winter pruning and tying down done, we are moving into easily the best time of year. Not spring, although it is undeniably spring, the period of doing jobs other than winter pruning and pruning associated activities! Yesterday, in one day, we did three, count ’em, three, different jobs in a single day. One moment I was tossing slug pellets around in a vain attempt to thin out the legion of snails that are lying in wait to nibble the vines, and the next, I was electrocuting myself on the electric fence that I had just repaired. After three months of fairly constant winter pruning, this is just the shot in the arm that I’ve been looking for. We even had time to prepare the replacement trellis posts for their new and innovative treatment that I devised with a vineyard owning chum from down the road. But I can’t tell you about that until next week, once we have collected our Nobel prizes and huge cheques from big business for being such utter geniuses. That’s right, it probably isn’t going to work terribly well, but I didn’t get where I am today by not being recklessly optimistic.