Do not despair!

Miraculously, almost all of our first vintage was sold before we could blink. This gave us a useful cash boost at a good time because we had decided to increase our planting. We cleared another plot and put in another sixteen hundred vines. We under-ordered on the plants so we had some trellised rows that remained unplanted until the following year. This block – block B as we imaginatively named it – was much easier than the first. For a start we didn’t have the war with nematodes that had made the first lot so stressful. For some reason they were absent. Secondly the vines took off with real vigour: none of them suffered from the stunting and dwarfism that had plagued the south end of the first block. One of the reasons for the better performance was that the rootstock was better-suited to the soil (almost all vines in South Africa, no matter what the cultivar, are grafted onto American rootstock because of the threat of Phylloxera) and the fact that there was a full year between preparing the soil and planting the vines also made a big difference.

Another reason for the easier time with the block B vines was that we had a bit more experience. As time passes you learn to get less flustered by setbacks. The experienced winegrowers know that almost any mistake you make in a vineyard can be fixed. Some mistakes might cost you money (sometimes quite a lot of money!) and some might slow your progress or impact the quality of that year’s vintage, but most mistakes can be fixed. The net result is that you expend less energy fretting about what could or what might happen.

When Peter Thorpe’s first grapes were hit by bunch rot (that season was characterised by weeks of misty, warm weather), he didn’t despair. We joined the pickers early in the morning to help with the harvest and I took one look at the grapes and said to myself “You’re wasting your time picking this lot”, but he knew much more than I did. He got the crew to clean the bunches as best they could, trucked the grapes to Graham Beck and the result was a superb sauvignon blanc. I have learned, and am learning still, to be a lot less emotional in the vineyard. What seems like utter disaster one day, will not look as bad after a night’s sleep.

I began spending more and more time on You Tube, watching videos about every aspect of wine growing and winemaking. One day I watched a video about a viral disease called Crown Gall and I felt my blood turn to iced water. The symptoms of Crown Gall disease are ulcerous, knobbly growths on the bark of the vine that can inhibit the flow of nutrients and, in extreme cases, impact yields and even kill the plant. I had found three or four galls, as they are known, at the base of some of our vines. We were doomed. All our work and money was lost. I reflected bitterly on the unfairness of life. There is no cure for Crown Gall disease.

I talked to as many people who would listen and it gradually became clear that there are different strains of the disease, some more threatening than others, and that a range of factors can reduce its seriousness. It also helps to remove the ulcers and to paint the scar with copper paste. I haven’t seen a gall for the last couple of years. You just have to do what you can, stay calm and carry on. Jo is far steadier than I am, and less prone to panic. And she has always been right. While I am seeing total disaster, she stays calm and looks on the upside. I have been trying to be more like her in this regard.