Summer Visitors

2013-07-06 09.40.01 [640x480]     2013-07-08 16.47.16 [640x480]

We are into the second half of our most important month and a tour of the vineyard reveals that summer is still very much on. The skies are absolutely clear, there isn’t the merest hint of a cloud, it’s arguably a little hot for work (but we have already covered that) and there are insects flitting about all over the place. The return of the insects after virtually all of them disappeared in 2012 is both good and bad news for us.

I noticed what I thought was mite damage on the vines for the first time in a couple years last week on just a few of the vines (which was the case the last time that we saw it). Insects haven’t been of particular concern to the vines at this time of year before, as the judicious use of insecticides (once ever, on a legion of wasps) has encouraged a good crop of ladybirds and soldier beetles that do an excellent job of keeping the mites et al in check. The soldier beetles seem to still be a bit thin on the ground so far this year, but there are quite a few adult ladybirds about and literally thousands of their offspring munching away on the mites that we can’t see, but thankfully they can. I saw a ladybird larva eating the black fly on a weed the other day, they are absolutely savage. And presumably extremely hungry. We had an alarming hour or two the first time that we saw ladybird larva – which had appeared in shocking numbers almost overnight and look kind of evil – and were mightily relieved to discover that they were doing us a favour. Not least because the chemical store was conspicuously insecticide free at the time.

Our discovering the new mite damage coincided with a visit from the very knowledgeable chap who sells us our chemicals. I described the damage that the mites were doing and, quick as a flash, he told me that I was talking complete rubbish, that capsid bugs were eating the vines and that we should be able to see them. I was shocked. Not that I’ve been talking rubbish these years – Lucy reminds me of that on a regular basis – but that we should be able to see the bugs that are having a go at the vines. He also told us that we would have to spray to eradicate them entirely, which would also knock out the good guys. Fortunately we have a method to remove naughty and visible insects that we developed when we had a problem with moths and their ravenous caterpillar offspring, specifically applying a thumb and forefinger to them and repeating until there aren’t any left. This method is both ecologically sound and incredibly satisfying, fingers crossed that it’s as effective on the capsid bugs as it was on the moths.

It appears that some of our resident pollinators have also returned after a year off. I have probably mentioned before that vines don’t exactly have the most exciting flowers as their petals are fused and all fall off in one go when it’s time for action. This tells us that they don’t do much in the way of attracting insects and in turn have to use the wind to pollinate their uninspiring flowers. Then again, every little helps, and in previous years we have seen (and been alarmed until identifying them also) pollen beetles and soldier beetles crawling all over the flowers and generally helping the wind out. And this year, for the first time ever, we have bees too, which are presumably off to make the world’s most delicious honey. We have considered and rejected the idea of keeping bees before as we understood that they aren’t much interested in the flowers of vines. Now that we know different, I shall be taking steps to ensure that the world’s most delicious honey is attached to my toast next summer.

The return of the charmless horse files is bad news for me in particular as they are turning me into a walking buffet car as I work in the field closest to other people’s livestock. I you haven’t had the pleasure – we certainly hadn’t until we went to live la vie rustique – horse flies land on you with a almost audible thud and then painfully bury their spiky head in you for the purposes of extracting your blood, with absolutely none of the gravitas employed by the sneaky and under handed mosquito. What makes the horse files extra delightful this time of year is that we are spending at least some of our time strimming at the moment, and when the strimmer kicks up chunks of grass and weeds onto the operator, it feels almost exactly the same as a predatory horse fly landing. And leaping about like a demented person and slapping yourself every thirty seconds doesn’t exactly expedite the process of removing the weeds from beneath the vines.

And what of the worst of our insect visitors? Vespula vulgaris, the obnoxious wasp, who lies in wait for you to tend your grapes carefully all summer and then callously eat them? He is conspicuously absent. According to the people who know about these things, he’s absent because he has yet to recover from the ravages of summer 2012. Could this summer get any better? No, it could not.

Ten Years of Gin

We were sat outside having dinner the other evening after a day spent trying (and mostly failing) to avoid marching up and down hills during the hottest part of another exceedingly hot day. The grass in the vineyard and around the house is neatly cut, the vines are looking verdant and lovely and, at the time of writing, I’m surveying our handiwork safe in the knowledge that the weather is set fair for the duration of the forecast period, nursing a gin and tonic so cold that it threatens to bond with my hand each time that I take a sip. It is absolutely glorious in our little Devonian enclave, and not even the prospect of several million caravans arriving in our quiet county at the start of the school holidays is enough to take the edge off the good time summer vibes. Not least because the school holidays are likely to consist of just one long weekend in July next year when the education secretary has finished with them. It’s days like this that make the horrors of summer 2012 possible to bear.

This mostly* unexpected bit of Mediterranean weather has taken us completely off guard, and we are having quite a bit of difficulty adjusting to the continental lifestyle that the continental weather demands (other than the gin and tonic). I’m currently charging around during office hours, absolutely brimming with steaming hot coffee and wondering why I start to feel peculiar after about half an hour or so in the sunshine. But then again, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to just sit and enjoy the vineyard at the nicest part of the day if we were out bud rubbing or mowing it in the evening and watching television or sleeping or whatever it is that Spanish people do at lunch time. Needless to say, nothing short of a crowbar will get the dogs out from the shade under the children’s trampoline at the moment, so we don’t expect them to be chasing any rabbits or deer out of the vineyard any time soon.

*I claim to be the only person who saw this extended period of excellent weather coming, after hearing the finest meteorological minds announce after their conference that we would be having ten years of rain and deciding that the opposite was very likely to happen. Possibly for the next ten years. I have told Lucy that we should probably get on and remove the central heating from the house.

So things are going well in the vineyard on account of the incredible weather, right? Correct. Taking a tour of the vines (at lunch time, so that we may enjoy the best of the relentless sunshine), the first thing that one notices is how far they have come on since we last looked. We had a visit from a friend last week who has lots of experience in English vineyards who assured us that our vines would catch up after their slow start this year. And lo, after starting over five weeks late and catching up to about two weeks behind last month, I’m pretty confident that they are now just about where they should be. Closer inspection of the vines reveals that the petals on the flowers (which are fused to make what looks like a small grape) are just about ready to fall off and expose their inner workings, kicking off the business end of the season.

Without wishing to labour the point (too late, ha!), decent weather around flowering is pretty much vital for our purposes and (quick check on the Met Office site), there is still wall to wall blue skies predicted during the period that we expect the vines to be flowering in. Our delight in the weather is slightly tempered by a lower density of flowers this year (albeit on more shoots on larger vines) which is probably the result of the miserable weather this time last year. But then again, what you lose on the roundabouts, you gain on the swings: the vines should be absolutely covered in flowers next year, and if the weather is even half way decent, they should be covered in grapes too. Whatever the case next year, it looks like our pickers will have something to do other than build us a deck outside the house and put the finishing touches on the winery building this year.

When we aren’t whining about the much needed heat and wandering about in it and complaining even more, it’s standard middle of summer fare in the vineyard. And that means cutting grass, cutting down weeds and finishing off the bud rubbing. In an unprecedented display of preparedness we managed to get most of the weeds sprayed off at the start of the season and are now reaping the benefits. Which is to say that the strimmer isn’t seeing nearly as much action as it was last year. The bud rubbing is very nearly finished (as is my back) and we are nearly into bud rubbing the new vines that were planted at the start of this season. And it’s high time that we started those, as lots of them have now grown up and out of the top of their rabbit guards, so it might even be possible to prune some of them in such a way as to allow them to have some grapes next year and contribute to 2014’s vintage. Which will no doubt be enormous.

***If you read our last entry, you may now have a headache on account of the blogging software kicking it out in one, paragraph-less lump. Apologies for any inconvenience. You might also have noticed that we have moved from weekly to bi-weekly publishing(?), it’s entirely due to time constraints over summer, we’ll be inflicting a weekly update on you when things calm down a little. You can find out when the blog has been updated here, or on Facebook ( or Twitter (@huxbearvineyard). We appreciate your continued attention.***

The Al Fresco Mower

After the glorious wall to wall sunshine, open windows and al fresco dining that we were enjoying when we last met, the weather is currently vacillating from the sublime to the ridiculous; often on the same day. One moment, we will be marching through the vineyard in the aforementioned unbroken sunshine, surrounded by more birds, bees, dogs and rabbits than Snow White had for company at the height of her powers. The next, we are running for cover from the torrential rain that has just been blown in by gale force wind, leaving only a lone black bird digging in the garden looking for worms. In fact, that’s not entirely true, at the time of writing, there is also a woodpecker out in the rain, hammering its head into the ground outside the kitchen window, but I think that it may have gone insane or something, so probably that doesn’t count.

And exactly why is summer on hold for the moment? It’s just possible that we are responsible. Not in the general way that our most local farmer insists that we are responsible, specifically that we have broken summer in Devon in perpetuity for having the temerity and stupidity to plant anything racier than a heard of cows in our fields. I think that the weather turned when our new sprayer was delivered and I attempted to spray the vines with our new super brilliant fertiliser cocktail for the first time. Fortunately the collection of weather boffins who have just announced that it is going to rain for the next ten years should help to rectify the situation any moment and we can expect, ahem, barbecue summers for at least the next ten years.

As the vines have finally started to motor, we are now moving towards the time of year that we really need some settled weather as we are about a fortnight away from when they are due to start flowering. If you weren’t with us this time last year, flowering happened at about the same time as our friends at the other end of the valley were frantically attempting to prevent the River Teign from making its way into their house, and all the rain washed the pollen from the flowers onto the ground before they could become grapes. Depending on your point of view, this was in many ways a blessing as the few bunches of grapes that did make it through spent the rest of the season being rained on, were picked in November and made a very small amount of revolting wine (which we then threw away). So at least we didn’t have to go around wasting our time spraying lots of grapes that weren’t going to make anything other than extremely sour wine. I suppose that small victories are still victories, no?

We finally had to give in and cut the vineyards last week. That short sentence doesn’t really do justice to the fun that we had making the mower work after its 6 months living in its container over winter. I had a quick whiz around the driveway and non vineyardy bits of land with the mower as they were the most needful of its attentions. Having had a couple of years off mowing (Lucy has been doing it, but now spends her weekends juggling children instead), I also thought that it would be a good idea to have a go somewhere that you can’t run into anything (read: posts, vines, dogs, children etc.). I was highly delighted that I had retained the ability to drive the tractor in roughly the intended direction, but less impressed with the mower, which wouldn’t cut any grass. Which sort of defeated the point.

This meant that it was time to take my life into my own hands and have a look underneath the mower again. The mower is attached to the back of the tractor and it is possible to prop it up at a height of about two feet, which is just enough to crawl under and investigate its inner workings. The time spent under it is usually fraught (the mower is very heavy and the tractor very old) and this was a special case as we couldn’t work out what the problem was. No matter how much I hit it with our largest spanner and swore at it, it did not seem to make the slightest difference. I looked at our puny strimmer, and then at the enormous field behind it, then back at the puny strimmer, considering using that instead of the mower. Then decided that it was time for us to break the glass and use our Get Out of Jail Free card; namely calling someone who knows how tractors work and beg him for assistance. Do you know how long it takes for someone who knows what he is doing to fix your mower? Not even long enough to have a coffee. It turns out that our problems lay on the top part of the mower – specifically the bit that stops the tractor rattling the mower to pieces. And by simply over tightening the bolts that hold that bit together, one may make the mower cut grass! So the vineyards changed from yellow to green overnight and are looking as lovely as they are easy to navigate. And I expect them to continue looking lovely until the mower rattles itself to death (one piece missing so far). It’s almost as if buying the cheapest one available is in some ways a bad idea.

Le Golden Chateau

Summer! Remember that? It has been missing in Devon since 2011, but it appears to have turned up. And we are absolutely delighted to see it back. After a winter that seemed like it was never going to end, we were sat outside the château last weekend, loitering in the shadows (lest we be cooked by the relentless sunshine) admiring the millions of buttercups that have burst into life all over the vineyard. For at least the time being (the weather forecast doesn’t look encouraging), Devon is absolutely the place to be; and by the looks of the roads around here, the caravanning population appear to agree with us.

Caravans apart, and even if it has been a little delayed this year, the start of summer is always an excellent time of year for us. There isn’t much disease around until next month or so, so there is no spraying to be done yet, you can see the flowers that will eventually become bunch after bunch of perfectly ripe grapes (well, let’s at least pretend that this is going to happen, we are going to be doing a lot of pretending this week). We can also spend much less time worrying about the weather as it’s a month or so away from flowering, so we don’t have to worry about the rain washing all the pollen off the flowers and onto the ground and the chances of there being frost around in June to zap our vines is effectively nil. Ahem, probably.

And what do the millions of early summer buttercups mean? Millions of buttercups mean that it is time for us to wheel out the old excuse that we haven’t cut the grass in the increasingly scruffy vineyard because we love to look at our (quite amazingly yellow) vineyard so much that it would be criminal to cut them all down. In reality, it is because there are lots of other things to do around here in June. So we are grateful to the buttercups for offering us the excuse to do something else; specifically crack open a bottle of gin at the weekend like normal people.

Walking through the furthest end of the vineyard that we live in, we noticed that there were still a lot of vine guards that I have not picked up yet, that a lot of rabbits still live in this field and that the established vines had not had their bark stripped off them over winter by the rabbits (which has been a problem in previous winters). This might not seem like a particularly momentous discovery, but it was a road to Damascus moment for us. As the rabbits were not eating the more established vines, it means that they don’t need the protection of guards, and guards that are safely stored in a shed cannot be blown around a vineyard and lie waiting to be collected over and over again! We were able to very quickly remove the guards from the ground and the vines and it looked so good that we were in the mood to celebrate! Although noticing that the rest of the field was full of vines with guards that I had spent the previous couple of months attaching to them with cable ties, dented our triumphant mood a little.

Up close, the vines have really started to get going and we are hopeful that they are going to catch up to somewhere near where they are supposed to be in the unbroken sunshine. At the latest estimate, they are now two to three weeks behind, as opposed to four to five earlier in the season. All of the varieties now have proper shoots on and it’s very nearly possible to chart their progress by the day from the front door. This is obviously fantastic for the vines, but it also means that the day that we start bud rubbing is drawing ever closer, so the annual ritual of staggering around like an exceedingly old person (and complaining like one) are very nearly upon us.

If you haven’t been with us for long, you won’t be aware of what bud rubbing is. Far from being an innocent sounding summertime rural pursuit, it involves bending down and removing the unwanted shoots from along the trunk of the vine (imagine taking the twigs off the trunk of a large tree to make it look nice and treeish). Which in turn means lots of bending over – 16,500 times this year – which in turn means an aching back and ham strings. Which in turn means us complaining about having to work outdoors in the stunning Devonian summer (still pretending) to some very unresponsive people who have the misfortune of having to spend summer looking out of the window of an office.

This is all very trying for us and it takes me ages to dream up excuses for not doing it and finding other things that I must be doing instead every year. I’m hopeful that Lucy will allow me to train up one (or both) of the children to help me do it next year as they are already much closer to the ground than I am. As I type, one of them appears to be attempting to chew the nose off a Postman Pat doll and the other is having a conversation with a model train, so it might just be that I have to hang on another couple of years for some help.

Away from the vineyard, we finally managed to get the final filtration on the Pinot Noir done this week, and are hopeful to have some of the bottling done next week (see, can’t get the bud rubbing excuses in too early). I am a very enthusiastic taster in the winery when Lucy isn’t looking, and am currently very pleased with the progress of the Pinot. Which is just as well, as we need to leave the tanks empty for this year’s bumper harvest, which will fill each of them to the brim (still pretending).

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.