It saved us from going potty, did Barbara’s vineyard…. ‘Wyfold’. Not only us, but a lot of our neighbours too. As you may have seen on ITV News last week and in the Telegraph this week. Why? Because at lockdown agricultural workers were declared ‘essential’ so, wonderful!! We got a ‘Get out of Jail’ Card. Barbara and her slave labourer; me, were allowed to drive to the vineyard a mile and a half away in Wyfold hamlet, to work daily.
But then, we had no choice; grapes are more labour intensive than any other crop I can think of. Apart from a break between harvest in October and starting pruning in the new year there’s always, always something needs doing in a vineyard….and almost all of it is by hand. The pruning was done by early March, but then the contract crew of Romanian viticultural workers went home to Romania’s vineyards. So, the task of gathering and burning the mountains of cuttings fell to us; two ‘shielded’ – and in my case unfit – oldies. So Moira came to help and Greg and Judy …. and we got it done. Plus, I got a bit fitter. It’s hot work, burning cuttings…melted my new rubber boots.
But when the smoke cleared, we realised it was a beautiful Spring, the sun was out and the first buds had appeared on the vines. Moira said she loved to hear the buds singing so loud…. but then she comes frae Glasgow and her ‘buds’ were skylarks. The vine buds were plentiful… too plentiful. Enthusiastic things; vines. Their natural inclination is to run rampant and riotous in every direction. But in vineyards they are cut back cruelly hard. They fight back though; buds, then tiny shoots appear where they are wanted, along the two fruiting canes but also up and down the old trunk where they are NOT wanted because they drain energy needed for ripening the grapes. But ‘bud rubbing’ is slow work and we weren’t keeping up.
Barbara had a bright idea. She’s got in volunteers to work her vineyard since the very beginning, but always ‘paid’ them with and barbecue and wine after. Which was now out of the question. But…what she realised she could offer now was… ‘Freedom’! She contacted her old team, also put an announcement in the neighbourhood app ‘Next Door’ and got a very gratifying response. More ‘Essential Worker’ certificates were printed, sent out and helpers were invited in at spaced 15-minute intervals to work, spaced apart of course. Barbara’s vine rows are, handily, 2.2 metres apart.
After bud rubbing came wire work. The vines grow on wires. As well as the permanently fixed fruiting wire to which the canes are attached there are three pairs of moveable wires which are moved up and down to neatly gather-in the new year‘s canes as they grow… up to about two meters. That’s a heck of a lot of upping and downing … both along the rows and in the air. But it looks so satisfyingly neat when it’s done well. And Wyfold is the neatest vineyard I know. Thanks to the volunteers. All sorts. There are older folk, you’d expect that, but also teenagers! Teenagers doing hard repetitive work? Whoever heard of that? OK earphones on, smartphone in hand but still …. working. There was also Martha furloughed from the Globe Theatre, American Rachel who works normally in renewable energy, and moved to the area just days before lockdown so was truly, totally isolated. There was Wendy the hairdresser, remarking how everyone now had such ‘interesting’ haircuts. Some brought their own picnics. Barbara sprayed their boots and gloves and even had their car tyres run through a mat of straw soaked in disinfectant. But this wasn’t for Covid-19 but for any other infection that might get into her vines. Bio security is needed in vineyards; all those vines living so close. Prof Peynaud in Bordeaux told us 50 years ago that vineyards were ‘a disaster waiting to happen. It was 150 years ago almost all vineyards in Europe got wiped out. But let’s not get more gloomy.
Somehow, word got out and along came both the ITV news van with its satellite dish and the photographer from The Daily Telegraph…. on the same day! Wyfold hamlet is hidden away down a single-track lane, it’s about as remote as you can get around here. It can never before have had National news coverage. Funny how the vineyard, which has regularly won its competitions and gold medals, all to prove it really is one of the very finest English Sparklers, still struggles to get known. It takes a pandemic lockdown for that!