Thursday, 22 August 2013

Volunteering at Holmfirth Vineyard

I've written about Holmfirth Vineyard before. I like it there. It's an up-and-coming venture with a lot of potential. About 2 months ago, I asked the owners (Ian and Bec) if I could come along and help them out, in order to learn a bit about how a vineyard is run. I get the impression that the work at a vineyard is never done, and so help is always appreciated. This was evidenced by Bec's enthusiasm with my offer to help.

I've done 2 days at the vineyard now, the last 2 Saturdays. They haven't quite been full days as I've had things to do in the afternoons/evenings. This said, I'd estimate I've done about 9 hours in total, I think.

I'll recap, quickly, what I have written previously about the vineyard. It has been set up by a young couple, Ian and Bec, who wanted a change in lifestyle. They quit there high-flying jobs and moved to the country. When pondering what to do with their new land, other than sheep farming, they came up with the idea of growing grapes and making wine. They've been going for about 5 years now and the vines are maturing nicely. They have 7000 vines, spread over 7 acres. These are neatly compartmentalised by lovely, old dry-stone walls. They have 4 grape varieties, 2 reds and 2 whites. From these, they hope to produce an average of 10000 bottle each year, although that is currently optimistic as the vineyard is still young. They have their own winery, in which they make and bottle their wines, and those of other vineyards who may not have such facilities.

When I am there, I am mainly overlooked by Luke. He is the 'cellar master', for want of a better description. He has been at the vineyard for a number of years, potentially from the start, but I haven't specifically asked him that. He, along with Al, his vineyard assistant (as he put it), look after all things vine and wine.

On day one, I was first invited to tag-along with the tour. This is run twice a day and costs £7. A group of paying guests get taken through the vineyard, and the tour guide (this varies as to who is free, Luke took the one I went on) tells them about it's history and what is going on there. Information about vines; including varieties, planting, growing, pruning, harvesting grapes, etc... is all included. There's actually a lot to take in. Then it's back to the winery for a quick introduction in to how the wines are made, going through de-stemming, crushing, fermenting, filtering, aging and bottling. Again, lots of info. Finally there was a chance to taste a few of the wines. Aromas and flavours are discussed first, and then prices!

My first job at the vineyard was removing leaves from the vines. There has been a few weeks of hot, sunny weather recently, this has encouraged the vines to put on extra growth (unwanted in some places). This means that the small clusters of potential grapes get covered by a thick mat of leaves. The idea is to remove leaves from around the young grapes to allow light on to them and to allow better airflow over them. The light is required for grape development and ripening, and the airflow helps to avoid the grapes staying moist, should it rain, which in turn helps to prevent mildew. The grapes are also kept cool should it get that warm, which it rarely does up on the hillside! The trick is to remove enough to satisfy the above criteria, while leaving enough to protect the grapes and allow the vine to photosynthesise sufficiently. Leaving leaves above the grapes, means they are protected from heavier rains and hail (the scourge of vineyards worldwide!).

I made my way through about 6 rows of vines in a couple of hours on the first day. On my second day, I continued this job to start. With my leaf-picking skills now honed, I got through about 12-13 rows of vines in about 3 hours. At this point I ran in to a slight problem. I realised my back was quite sore. I'm fairly tall and the vines are trellised quite low down. This is done due to the high winds they get on the exposed hillside above Holmfirth. As a result of this, I needed a break and therefore sought-out my supervisor and requested a different job.

The next job on the to-do list was to sure-up as many of the wooden trellising posts, as was needed. They become loose and wobbly because of the weight of the vines and, again, the high winds. I was given a large, blue and quite heavy tool to use. I don't know what it's called, but I've seen and used one before, and I'll call it a 'post knocker-in-er'. It's a metal tube with one end closed off by a flat metal plate and it has large handles on either side. The idea is that it slots over a post and guides itself as the user lifts it up and drops it down on top of the post, with force. So I set about this task. Walking up and down the rows, giving the posts a bit of a nudge and seeing if they need a whack on top! The main culprits were the row-end posts. These have a diagonal support post in line with the row, but because they only have trellis on one side they wobble more at 90 degrees to the row, and work themselves loose. The job of suring-up posts is pretty tiring. the knocker-in-er is heavy and the posts are tall. So I was quietly relieved when the black clouds rolled over and it started to rain! I'm not paid to slog away in inclement condition, so it was time for home.

I really enjoyed my time at the vineyard so far. It's a very lovely place and most peaceful. The views down in to the valley, and up the other side, are just spectacular. On a dry, less breezy day, it's great working there. I'm starting to think that I wouldn't mind the bad weather either. One of the things I like about vine/grape-growing, there seems to always be a job that needs doing, no matter what else is going on. Nature strides forward as best it can, and the viticulturist has to try and keep up!

I'll try to continue these little stories about my time at the vineyard. I don't have a permanent agreement to work a certain amount, so as and when they let me go and help, I'll keep you posted.

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