It really grates to keep reading what a great year it’s been for grapes. It rankles to hear, on the radio, that there are 50% more vineyards this year than last. Well, you say, you sound a bit – dour. And I am. I haven’t been looking forward to writing his blog but I’ve put it off about as long as I can and I did say the good, the bad and the ugly. And this is definitely bad or even ugly. Ironically this disaster, for that is what it was, happened the day after I wrote the last vineyard blog, so I must admit the blow has softened somewhat, but it still hurts. And don’t ever tell me that God or, whoever controls these things, hasn’t got a sense of humour or, at the very least, a keen sense of irony. You will remember from my last vineyard blog, that my OZ chum said I would never make any wine and he was quite right (or almost as you will see shortly), he was right but for entirely the wrong reason. Couldn’t be more wrong.
There’s a double irony and it is based on the fact that he said the grapes wouldn’t ripen, well they did, and they didn’t. Let’s take the didn’t, they didn’t ripen because the bloody birds ate 80% of them before we could pick them – the disadvantage of living away from the site and visiting only once a week. In the space of a week the bastards ate most of them. The double irony is that I hadn’t picked them because my refractometer said they weren’t ripe, but the birds clearly disagreed. I had naively thought that, until they were ripe, I didn’t need to worry about the birds. Wrong apparently. A hard lesson I think you will agree.
And the double whammy was that in order to save any grapes at all we picked what was left before they were ripe enough to make wine, which has caused all sorts of difficulty in trying to make any wine even with the limited amount we had left. I’ll come back to this but the irony is that, contrary to my Aussie chum’s prediction, the grapes were ripening and getting close to the recommended sugar level. I calculated that if we left them another couple of weeks they would be ready to make a limited quantity of wine. Ahh, how wrong could one person be?
The very thing that was meant to be their downfall (lack of ripeness) was their downfall in a completely different way (ripe enough for the birds). So there we were with a bloody great crusher / de-stemmer and a pathetically small quantity of grapes to put through it. Nevertheless that’s what we did, it was simple really, we had no choice but to carry on with what we had, and that is what we did.
This is where we needed to be creative and creative is what we were. I quickly realised through limited tasting of the grape juice we had (it had to be limited, we didn’t have much) that I was going to need to blend our juice with other juice. My first idea was to buy some table grapes which would presumably be sweet and fruity and at some point blend the two. I went off the idea a bit, despite having found on the internet recipes for making wine from table grapes, when Mrs Summerhouse pointed out that this would be costly. My next idea was to buy a ‘kit’ of Merlot, as it turned out, from my local wine-making shop. Again quite expensive – £45 but it reportedly makes 30 bottles of wine. I bought the kit. After all I already had all the other bits and bobs including a bloody big shed where the wine would be made – ha. Anyway I bought it and so, alongside our half bucket of ‘wine’, happily bubbling away was a full bucket of the ‘kit’ wine.
But my next idea, admittedly effectiveness yet to be proved, was a cracker. It was to make orange wine from a recipe we found again on the internet. I had always thought that it was silly trying, under our circumstances, to make a quality red wine (the white vines – Solaris for whatever reason produced next to no grapes, so even the birds went hungry on that side of the vineyard). What our wine needed I reasoned way back when, was some kind of USP (not that I was planning on selling any). As luck, maybe, that remains to be seen, would have it, The Observer colour supplement, I think it was, had an article about orange wines a few months ago. It sounded interesting and I filed the information away just in case. And now here we were very much in case. So we decided to experiment. You will remember I have described the whole vineyard project as experimental, just in case we failed – little did I know then – and here we were, largely failed. So back to the oranges which we bought at ASDA unfortunately, not like the chap on the website who bought his at Leeds Market, much more artisan. But they were pretty cheap, we only bought 12 oranges which the man said was enough to make half a dozen bottles. We didn’t think it wise at this point to make much more because we weren’t at all sure that this aspect of the grand experiment would work. We still aren’t but now alongside ‘our’ wine and the ‘kit’ wine we have a partially filled bucket of orange ‘wine’.
So far I’ve racked – transferred – ‘our’ wine into demi-johns and are waiting for kit wine and orange wine to stop bubbling, to do the same although we’re going to need more demi-johns. Then at some point in the next few weeks I will try and blend all three wines into something both interesting, unique might be risking it a bit, and, above all, drinkable. I have absolutely no idea in what proportions I will blend the three sources and whether we can still call the final concoction a product of Trapping Hill vineyard – it’s not as if we’re selling the damn stuff. Whether we will ever transfer it to bottles, which will mean buying the bottles, the corks and the corking machine and even designing our own labels which actually would be fun, Mrs Summerhouse being an artist and all, I don’t know. I’ve got this far by breaking down a complicated process into small steps and taking one step at a time. My fellow amateur vine grower said “it’s not rocket science,” (making wine), I agree it’s much more complicated.
So there we have part 2 (of 4 or maybe 5 parts) of my retirement plan. I must admit that when I talked of probably failing in our marginal setting, I hadn’t expected to fail it quite such a spectacular and, for us at least, unpredictable a fashion. It’s not that having the birds eat your grapes is unusual, they’re a constant source of concern for all proper vineyard owners, I just hadn’t expected this source to be our undoing. Rabbits, sheep, deer, moles, rain, frost, lack of sun, wind, poor soil, etc. all seemed likely or at least possible. Even birds maybe but not before the bloody grapes were ripe enough to pick. I sometimes look at my retirement choices and think maybe I would have been better off with a nice simple hobby like train sets (which I still have in my attic) but hey ho, let’s just hope for better things next year. At least we will be forewarned although I’m not sure what preventive steps we will take with the birds but then I’ve got almost a whole year to find out. Being retired I’ll have plenty of time!
And finally to the image at the beginning of this blog. You probably wondered what the significance of it was. Well, shortly after we failed to produce grapes, this headline appeared in the local paper, a friend suggested maybe we should try growing marijuana as there seemed to be a demand and maybe the birds either wouldn’t eat the plants or would crash and burn, high on dope if they did. The final irony is that we have land in Colorado and, of course, marijuana is now legal in Colorado. But not here, as we can see from the paper, so maybe I’ll have another go at grapes next year before ‘diversifying’.