It’s Quality

The scale of wine farming is like everything else: as you produce more, so your average unit costs drop. But it is also true that as you produce beyond a particular quantity, you endanger your quality. Many big estates now use the most fantastic machinery. Machines have been developed that can do mechanical weeding, multi-row spraying, pruning, and harvesting. These machines reduce costs but there can be no doubt that they can and often do compromise quality. Boutique wine prices are driven up not just by the absence of economies of scale, but often by the superior quality of the wine itself.
How is quality improved in a small vineyard? There are so many small decisions that we make regarding each vine, individually, every year. Pruning, feeding, suckering, crop thinning, leaf plucking, harvesting, (and so on, and so on) are all done by hand and small adjustments can be made for all of the differences that exist in the vineyard. Some vines are in slightly more or less favourable soil than others so they need to be treated differently. You know exactly how different sections of the vineyard behaved last year and so you tailor your management to bring the block into alignment. When you harvest, your bunches are handled gently so few berries split and start oxidising. In the cellar you can keep the juice from different blocks (or even rows!) separate and learn more about your grapes with each passing year so that an increased set of options as far as blending, wooding, yeast choices and so on become available. This is not to say the big estates don’t make great wine – many do – but with the small estates you are pretty well guaranteed to get a wine that has been produced with passion and care and a minute attention to detail.
When I walk through the vines I notice each plant. The spurs on one might be too close together or too far apart. The stem might need to be moved into a more upright position so that the cordon line is better filled. If it bore really heavily last year it will need fewer buds this year. The small adjustments that you make can mean a stronger, better vine next year. On big estates this also happens but the focus is on how the block is performing rather than the individual vine and your interventions tend to be on a larger scale. I really do believe that this impacts quality.

Science vs Romance : One of the real challenges we faced was that neither of us knew anything about farming. I have no background in Chemistry or Biology – as an English teacher I’m probably the least-equipped person in the world to start winegrowing. There is a romantic, aesthetic dimension to wine and grapes that attracts me, but a lot of the time I’m flying blind, relying on gut feel and advice from colleagues.
It’s safe to say that most urban people romanticise farming. I know I did before I started actually doing it. But despite what I said earlier about some obvious similarities, farming is not like gardening. Gardening is done for recreational, aesthetic purposes and farming is done for money. This really changes everything. When your income depends on the success or failure of your crop you will do anything necessary to make things work. You might be inclined to farm organically, but if your plants are dying from mildew and there is a cheap, effective spray that will protect them without harming insects or birds, you find that you are suddenly prepared to compromise.