Spend a Week with Stan
Written August 2022
I first joined Rathfinny for the 2016 harvest. My parents had visited the Estate for a tour, bringing home some contact details to apply for grape picking. I thought I’d give it a go, seeing this as a subtle hint to get me out the house. Having just finished a masters degree, job hunting was getting me down a bit. The harvest was a great experience, followed by staying on for winter pruning, spring planting and summer shoot tucking.
The more time spent amongst the vines in Cradle Valley or overlooking Cuckmere Haven, the more I grew attached to the location. Returning to an office job seemed farfetched. With this I asked Cam, Vineyard Manager, about routes for further education and a career. Fortunately, the Vineyard Technician role opened up soon after and I’m now in my fourth year. Time flies.
My job is, primarily, to record and analyse how the vines perform year on year. With the last few annual cycles giving us incredibly variable weather, the idea of a ‘standard’ year is hard to quantify. However, historical data does still play its part here. As we learn more about our site, we’re able to predict and adapt to whatever the year throws at us.
The working week starts with some new and exciting tech. We’ve been filming up and down our vine rows at different points throughout the season. Once this footage is captured, the files are sent off to a machine learning A.I. which is helping us count shoots, shoot length and bunches. The footage is filmed at 5-8 Mph, which is, of course, is much faster than I am able to count. While the camera still needs me to drive it around at the moment, who knows how long before it can drive itself! Luckily for my job, the results aren’t quite as accurate as I’d like yet. I’m sticking to my bunch counts at the moment, which will be used for yield predictions come harvest.
We had a monumental downpour this morning, 32mm between 10am and 4pm. Our wettest day recorded during the last couple of years and the first rain to properly wet the ground since the 4th June. Good to see the vines getting a first watering in a while, also as good a time as any to spend indoors. I upload the videos from the day before, filmed in 4K for image clarity, so the file sizes are large. There’s plenty of harvest enquiries to answer, from those who have picked with us for many years, to those who are giving it a go for the first time. I’ve been the point of contact for picker employment for a while now. Seems a meaningful turnaround since I was the one emailing in asking for work six years ago.
The rain clears towards the end of the day and I’m getting cabin fever, so I head out into the vineyard. If I notice anything out of the ordinary, I’ll add to my notes or take a photo so I can discuss with Cam. Experience is vital here and our Vineyard Manager has plenty, regularly parting with a fact or two and pointing me in the right direction.
I continue my scouting of the vineyard. We have 58 different blocks throughout the estate, making up just under 380,000 vines. There’s plenty of area to cover.
During my scout I’m observing canopy health, as well as the developing bunches. Veraison is not far off, the growing stage at which berries become soft and change colour. We have some areas of Pinot Noir Precoce, in which berries have already started ripening towards a deep red colour. I visit these areas in order to do a quick count as we expect veraison should occur in the next couple of days.
After a while, heavy rain begins to fall again. I retreat to the office as it’s difficult to count anything and I’m getting soaked. This gives me a chance to look at some of our previously logged veraison dates. I notice this year we’re about eight days ahead of last year’s veraison, with only 2018 showing earlier colour change. Good news for ripeness this year, but no surprise given the incredibly hot August we’ve had. This being said, I can hear rolling thunder outside as the rain continues. I finish off the day by adding some statistical musings to my work-in-progress growing season report.
The weather is looking brighter Thursday morning, so I continue with some bunch counts. For this I’m using the Sectormentor app, a farmer owned business providing digital tools for other farmers. I use the app to record various points of interest throughout the year, notably observations on soil health, biodiversity and, of course, the vines.
While my head is in the canopy, counting bunches, I hear a rustle further down the row. I look up to see a young Roe deer watching carefully, before bolting off under the vines. Very special sighting. While there’s plenty of deer around here, it’s rare to see one so close. I add a note of the sighting, along with the date and location in my biodiversity monitoring diary. Over the last few years I’ve been adding to this diary with mostly hare sightings, fairly common on the estate, but always exciting to see. I also add plants, birds and insects when I can identify them. While I’m still fairly inexperienced, it’s been great to learn and start recognising the wildlife we see on the estate. My educational history is in Environmental Science, so It’s been great exercising my knowledge once again. I’m grateful to have the chance to be involved with some great initiatives for improving biodiversity here at Rathfinny and within the South Downs.
Friday is my photography day. There’s marked vines I visit regularly, taking a weekly photo from the same location in order to capture a time-lapse photo reel. These either focus on bunch or canopy development in eight different locations. Very useful in my reports, especially to those who need a distraction from all the numbers and statistics.
With the rain easing off during the afternoon, this gives me the opportunity to scout some more. I find it’s useful towards the end of the week to have a comprehensive view on how the vines are progressing in each area, as I’ll be blind to any changes during my weekend absence. This, however, won’t stop me checking the forecast quite regularly.