Growing Grapes And Making Wine
Grape Growing And Wine Making - Happy Days!
My days as a grape grower and winemaker were the happiest days of my life. I suppose that is not only because of the wonderful lifestyle it offered, but also because I raised three wonderful children who were also brought up knowing much about vineyards, grapes and importantly, wine.
I was fortunate enough to have an unusual daily commute to work - walk 100 yards across a field to my winery - bliss!
Now, I am spending more time writing about my interests and loves, I have recently reflected a great deal on this stage in my life, and wondered why I haven't written anything about it yet. One reason I suppose, it is so very recent, and perhaps there hasn't been enough time for water to pass under this particular bridge.
Anyhow, I am now going to dip a toe in the water and reflect and reminisce on some happy grape growing and winemaking days.
All photos here are taken by me or my family, except wine tasting in Lucky Break.
Where It All Began
A chance meeting
In 1984, soon after I got married, I left Ireland and started looking for a job in the horticultural sector in the UK.
Having been trained in agriculture, and spending the previous dozen or so years helping on my fathers dairy farm, I needed a change. The truth was that I wanted to get away from the 24 hour business of dealing with.. putting up with... cows!
Cows are not bad animals - but when they spend time breaking out of enclosures and ending up grazing your loved, well tended garden - enough is enough. It was a lovely old fashioned farm with a beautiful Irish Georgian house at its heart, and even had its own 12 acre lake (which we fished for pike and swam in when we were kids). But the farm was known for its prized dairy herd of Jersey cows, which produced the most wonderful, artery-clogging milk, cream and butter.
What I really wanted was something that wasn't such a tie - milking 100 cows twice a day - OR would not break out of fields OR require regular veterinarian attention...
...and WOW, what did we find?
Look at the image above ~ this was a small vineyard that was totally neglected ~ on the market for a price way out of our financial reach ~ but we were able to help the man who owned it ~
WE HAD STARTED A NEW CAREER it was exciting - We were now GRAPE GROWERS.
Learning A New Trade
Buy books and talk to experts
Having got in to a job without the specific required skillset, namely knowledge of vines, vineyards and their pests and diseases, there was a lot that needed to be done. Although I had an agricultural training, and knew a fair bit about soil science, animal husbandry and mechanisation, there had been nothing studied on viticulture.
Over the next year, we honed our skills as viticulturalists by buying plenty of new and second-hand books on the subject, and soon we were slowly becoming experts.
The only area that we had no control over was of course, the weather. This was to become something I had to accept - as there was nothing I could do about it:
- It would freeze throughout the delicate time of bud burst in May (frost burns the young growth).
- It would rain during the flowering July period (a must for absolute dry conditions to enable pollination).
- It would blow a hurricane during spraying times all summer (need still conditions).
- It might even snow or sleet at harvest time in October.
But heck! Who wants an easy life? ~ one that is challenging is more rewarding ~ so they say!
I now agree tough times seen through are indeed rewarding, but more than that, you learn so much about yourself, your capabilities, strengths and weaknesses - it's all character-building ~ AND IT WAS.
WE STILL HAD SO MUCH TO LEARN
Making Our Own Wine
Attention to detail always pays off!
Following a successful and fairly bountiful first harvest whereby we sold all the grapes to a large contract winery, what was the next stage going to be?
When grapes are sold as a cash crop, they must be picked and processed as quickly as possible. We had to arrange for an entire 13 acre vineyard to be hand harvested in just ONE day, which meant getting in about 50 helpers, to enable the job to be completed on time.
Because of the speed of this pick, it was inevitable that a fair amount of fruit was missed and remained hanging on the vines. This was our first opportunity at attempting to make OUR VERY OWN WINE, but we had no equipment.
On tracking down a small local producer who was willing to lend us some basic crushing and pressing kit (see above) ~ we were in business.
We picked, crushed and pressed our way though dozens of gallons of juice, and with the help of our several books ~ STARTED TO MAKE WINE.
Meeting a man in a million!
Once our wine had fermented, and been lovingly cared for, it was bottled (using every sort and shape of bottle recovered out of the waste skip of a local hotel). We were now the proud owners of a wine that had been bottled and corked into a motley crew of discarded whiskey, gin, vodka, beer and lemonade bottles.
We had tried to make wine with no experience at all ~ offset by a desire to succeed in everything we attempted.
Our lucky break arrived when we approached a business friend of the vineyard's owner and requested a meeting. Not only were we facing just one high-flyer in our midst, he had brought some friends with him.
On serving up a light meal for the party, it was time to conduct a small wine tasting. But this was no ordinary tasting, it included a few very well known wines and one unheard of wine! The group sniffed and slurped their way through the samples, but we had sneaked that homemade bottle that we made into this session.
With a unanimous decision, the wine showing the most interest was OUR OWN WINE.
On the strength of our first ever bash at making wine, not only had we impressed some high powered businessmen, we had secured our future at this vineyard. When asked, "What is your long term goal here"? I replied, "To one day build a winery - not just any winery but the best stainless steel one in England, and make wine".
His reply to me was:
"GO AHEAD AND BUILD YOUR WINERY"
Photo credit http://www.wijnpers.nl
With A New Winery - New Skills Are Required
With advice from a world renowned winemaker
When it comes to planning and designing such a specialized building such as a winery, I was fortunate enough to meet and befriend a decent, generous and humorous guy by the name of Karl-Heinz Johner from the Black Forest in Germany. He suggested that I visited him on occasions to learn this new craft. I was so lucky - again - and what he taught me, I will forever be in his debt.
I was taken to stainless steel fabricators to have custom-built wine tanks and special bespoke pieces of equipment made. Then on to learn all about materials, methods and techniques of the wine making process itself. This all happened so fast ~ one minute I am a simple grape grower, the next I'm on my way to becoming a 'WINEMAKER'.
Obviously there was still a long way to go, you don't just become skilled at such a science or art by having a winery ~ but it was the perfect start for me ~ ONWARDS AND UPWARDS.
Over the following years, I honed my new craft with sheer persistence and dedication. Being able to grow our own grapes made all the difference as the quality in the bottle always reflects the quality of the raw material.
Good, clean grapes = Good wine
Hard Work And Persistence Yield Rewards
Wine awards start to roll in!
It is often said that hard work and persistence pays dividends, in my case it certainly did. But I had so much valuable help from the family, friends and professional colleagues who contributed such a lot to my winemaking success.
My father used to instill into me little bits of info like the following:
~ hard work never hurt anyone,
~ do the best you can,
~ don't farm as you know how to - only farm how you can afford to,
~ if a job's worth doing - do it right,
~ if you want something done properly - do it yourself.
I guess I inherited a good work ethic, and by being lucky enough to be doing a job I absolutely loved - attention to detail began to pay off.
First we picked up a very coveted and rare silver medal for a super, fruity and aromatic dry white wine in one of the worlds biggest wine competitions, The International Wine Challenge, held in London in 1990. More national and international awards soon followed. We were on a run, and still GOING UPWARDS.
Best Wine Books Of All - All you need is right here!
Ever Grown Your Own Grapes?
Have you ever grown your very own grapes?
The Grape Grower
Great place to start!
A Guide to Organic Viticulture
Packed with useful information, it would be difficult to find a book covering any aspect of growing grapes that is not included here. Learn how to prune your grapes and deal with animal pests in the vineyard.
Talking Wine With Royalty
The Duchess of Kent
One of the most enjoyable parts of my winemaking experience was that of meeting people and telling them what we were up to and what we were trying to achieve. This meant that we promoted ourselves wherever we could, especially at rural agricultural shows.
By having a stand at these events, we would offer members of the public a chance of tasting our wares - we made many different styles and types of wine. The object was of course, not only to sell our wines, but make folk aware that top class wines were actually being made in their own locality.
Occasionally, we had VIP's visiting the shows - here is the graceful Duchess of Kent (cousin to The Queen) in conversation with me.
Made Your Own Wine Before? - Vigneron or not!
Have you ever tried to make your own wine before?
The Wine Bible
Great reference guide
This is an awesome book. If you are getting into wine, or even if you already know quite a bit, this book is a must. It lays out just about everything you would want to know about every major wine producing region in the world.
Demand For Winemaking Services
This indeed was sweet recognition!
Following the numerous wine award successes for making wines for ourselves, the local competition soon realised that perhaps they should try having their wine made by a professional - I can now call myself that, reckon I'd earned it at last.
So within a year or two, I was making third party wines for more than a dozen commercial winegrowers. This necessitated boosting the capacity of tankage in the winery, and employing some extra labour.
Times were good days were long - WE WERE HAPPY.
The icing on the cake was that I could see my children growing up all the time - they frequently visited me in the winery in their pyjamas before going to bed, they loved singing and shouting into the openings of the vast tanks, only to get it echoed back fourfold. They drank copious quantities of grape juice - sometimes even after a couple of days in ferment. (Still mainly sugar - not alcohol yet!).
TREASURED TIMES ARE SO SPECIAL, THESE WERE MY DAYS OF WINE AND GRAPES!