This article was originally published in issue nine of Noble Rot.
Few self-appointed critics are stupid enough to actually try their hand at whatever it is they review. The risk of abject, shamefaced failure is far too great. It needn’t matter whether they have the necessary credentials to pass judgement on movies or restaurants or rollercoasters or whatever. All the budding critic needs these days are plentiful supplies of two things: wifi and ego.
I, however, am comfortably stupid enough. In August 2008 I started working part-time at Gusbourne Estate, an English vineyard in Kent. Over the subsequent 12 months, I spent one day a week as a lowly grunt of grape-growing, determined to see for myself how laughably easy it is to be a vigneron.
Here’s what I learned.
As I arrive for my first shift in the vineyard, pinpricks of dew still festooning the trellis like fairy-lights in the fresh dawn light, I meet the team who await the arrival of their intriguing new recruit. They assemble at the top of an immaculate white gravel drive as I crunch confidently towards them. My colleagues consist of three twenty-something sirens: a doe-eyed English rose from the nearby village, a smouldering dungarees-wearing Spanish tomboy (I mean she’s smouldering, not her dungarees) and an all-American blonde cheerleader on her gap year.
I make a modest little joke about how I’m a budding writer and the vines are budding too. “Wow,” they all sigh to themselves, “what a dreamboat!”
That’s exactly how it was, in my imagination. In reality, I get picked up by my old mate Jon, the vineyard manager, who rocks up to a deserted branch-line train station called Appledore in relentless drizzle, driving a knackered old Land Rover. Burdened by jackets, hats, bags cameras and umbrellas, I ignominiously haul myself up into the passenger seat on the third attempt and am promptly besieged by his soaking wet Labrador puppy.
Lesson one: don’t wear your best jeans to a vineyard.
One chipped mug of milky tea later, and I’m out in the vines. I look around me. I’ve made it! I’m growing grapes! This is what it’s all about – the open air, communing with nature, and look – that’s terroir, actual terroir, beneath my very feet!
I look around me again. The skies darken. A huddle of golems from the agricultural temp agency are wretchedly smoking roll-ups as we are given our tasks for the day. I’m convinced their tattoos signify allegiance to prison gangs.
The drizzle has become rain. I get partnered with a seven foot eastern European cybernetic organism called Tom. The Tominator. Jon hands us each an enormous machete and tells us what we need to do. My partner weighs the tarnished steel in his hand, flipping it back and forth, and runs a calloused thumb along its blade.
As we lumber off towards our allotted rows, I manage to give my new partner a smile even weaker than the tea. “I’m Richard,” I offer. “I’m a wine writer.” No response. Oh well, at least I’ve got my phone. I can stream something to listen to.
Lesson two: don’t expect to get phone signal in a field in the middle of nowhere.
We start work at eight o’clock. Five hours of backbreaking, exhausting work later, I look at my watch. Ten past eight. The rain has become a torrent. The task at hand is removing tubular plastic rabbit nets from around the trunks of young vines. After the first year, the vines have grown thick enough to resist being eaten, rendering the nets unnecessary. They need to be cut off with the machete.
It almost occurs to me that there could be no possible harm in leaving the stupid nets in place, and that I might just be involved in the most abominably pointless job ever devised in the history of humanity, but I’m too delirious to gather my thoughts. So I trudge to the next vine, bend double and hack at the net. Swipe, yank, scythe, grunt, yank, strain, slash, yank. Check ten fingers still attached. Move on.
Lesson three: viticulture is incessantly repetitive.
By the end of the first day, though, as we hobble back towards the shed and the rain finally abates, allowing the ochre evening sun to scalp the tops of the vine canopy, I can’t help but feel a sense of achievement. The Tominator and I have silently bonded as we helped each other out, picking up dropped tools and preventing each other being swallowed whole by sucking slicks of mud. Exhausted, we sit together, swig beer from the bottle and survey the vista of vinifera that rolls away from us, down the gentle Kentish swell.
The following week, I’m on the train again, still fostering that sense of pride. It’s born of teamwork, of serious physical labour. Of battling the elements and taming mother nature. I’m helping, in my own small, feeble way, to make wine. The thing I study, taste and write about. The first week was hard, sure, but I’ve got a whole year ahead of me to learn the subtle arts of viticulture, which I’m writing up every week as a diary of my experiences. Who knows, I might even turn it into a book some day.
I’m creating the very thing that makes me a living. Outside the train window, I see distant rows of vines come slowly into focus as we pull into Appledore station.
Less than an hour later, and I’m bent double doing the same goddamn job with the bloody nets and the machete.
Lesson four: don’t expect to find something interesting to write about every week. And re-read lesson three, idiot.
Before you criticise someone, goes the saying, walk a mile in their shoes. Well, I wore those shoes. I walked those miles. And let me tell you: I loved every exhausting, satisfying, maddening moment of it.