I wrote in my last vineyard blog that the jury was still out on whether we would pick our grapes this year. Let me cut to the chase on this, we did not pick any grapes this year. There I’ve said it, now everybody will know that we have failed. It’s not quite that bleak, not failure exactly more of a steep learning curve. We did have grapes, lots of them but, in the end, they didn’t ripen enough for us to make the decision to pick. We left the decision as late as we could but, by mid-November, the BRIX (sugar reading) was stuck at 17 or less so we thought no, we’ve got enough on in other areas of our life without creating more work and even more wine. After all we haven’t drunk last year’s vintage yet. So let the birds have them and this is where the beautiful irony of the whole business begins (although doesn’t end). The birds have not touched the grapes this year. Now this might be to do with our bird scaring efforts – obviously in the small area we netted we would expect the grapes to be untouched. The rest of the vineyard had only Olive the owl for protection (see end for another startling picture of Olive). Now it’s possible she did a hell of a job protection-wise or there is some other explanation about why the birds didn’t do what they did last year, i.e. eat the majority of the grapes. It can’t be that the grapes weren’t ripe enough to eat because the sugar levels were higher this year than last. So, a mystery. Irony or what?
And more irony, you can’t see it too well in the photo above but this year the grapes, in their ripening, were, on many bunches, shrivelling, like little raisins. Now, and I’m speculating here, as they look too crowded, I’m thinking we should have thinned them out earlier in the season. But, I didn’t do this (not that I actually know how to do but of course there is always Youtube) because for most of the ‘summer’ it didn’t look like we were going to pick any grapes, so I didn’t bother. Possibly had I thinned the bunches, we might have had some pickable grapes. As I said last time, only at the last minute when the weather warmed up a bit, did the grapes start to show decent sugar levels and by then it was too late to thin them.
So that was us, this was Trapping Hill vineyard for 2015 but of course that’s not all because as soon as I have made my peace with our lack of success then I start to wonder how others in the north have fared. It’s a version of ‘it’s not enough that I succeed, others must fail, without the succeed part. More accurately it’s that old phrase of my grandma’s – misery loves company. So we failed but how did other vineyards in the area do? That’s the big question now. I haven’t felt able to ring round my colleagues and ask, that would be just too needy. So I turn to the latest edition of The Grapevine magazine, mouthpiece of the Mercian Vineyards Association of which we are a member, for comfort. And there it is.
A summing up from John Buchan (a regular contributor to the magazine and a man of some knowledge). I will quote some bits from his article so you will believe I am not just making it up to make myself feel better. John wrote, “flowering on many sites was significantly compromised. This was more evident on sites that were less than ideal with regards to soil type and variety (that’s definitely us, we are less than ideal). This obviously did lead to poor and inconsistent fruit set …. I write this as the harvest is half completed, indicating a close to 40% drop in yield… This will have been our POOR YEAR (John’s capitals not mine).
So without wishing to seem like an unpleasant sort of person, I can honestly say I felt some relief. It’s not just us that have cocked it up, it’s mostly the fault of the weather and by the look of it, not just in our part of the Mercian Vineyards area. So are we down-hearted? A little bit but, as I keep saying in these vineyard blogs, this is a hobby not a business. We’ve learned a bit more this year mainly about the need to thin the bunches. There’s always next year maybe with more netting, more Olives (the owl that is, not the fruit) and will certainly continue to use the willows as wind-breaks. In fact, pruning the willows which have grown tremendously and then sticking the shoots in the ground now they have lost all their leaves, will probably be our next task. Then very soon it will be time for winter-pruning and on we go. At the end of our second year of getting grapes we feel our knowledge is slowly developing and it hasn’t cost us a fortune. My only regret is that it seems, from odd bits of information we get from our farmer neighbour, that practically the whole of the valley is monitoring our progress and, farmers, being farmers, wondering if there is a business opportunity for them in growing grapes in this most unlikely of settings. So no pressure there then. But the ultimate question I suppose is one of those, if I knew then what I know now, type, would we have gone ahead and planted nearly 500 vines in this not-quite-ideal spot? Would we have spent our money on vines, posts, wire, sheds, fencing, equipment, tools, sprayers, fertilisers and labour and probably a dozen other bits and pieces I’ve forgotten or chosen to forget? Answer, yes, absolutely, it’s been an adventure and after two years of wrestling with the question, what is this retirement business all about? I think a little adventure, some risk taking is a very sensible way of spending some of my retirement time. After all when I meet somebody who doesn’t know the vineyard and I can say casually, oh, yes, we’ve got a vineyard in North Yorkshire, well, that’s priceless, worth every penny of the several thousand £s we’ve ‘invested’ in our vineyard project and, as I’ve repeatedly written in these blogs, a retired person needs projects. So onward and upward whatever that means.