Winemaking: It's not all wine, women and song

Viticulture is hard work - and it can take a long time to earn a decent income, says Guy Clapperton
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The Independent Online

You might think the wine industry is one long party. The reality is that it's rewarding only through a lot of hard work. When you go into the wine trade you are entering an agricultural or retail career; if you don't fancy either of those things, it's probably not for you.

When he interviews applicants for Plumpton College in Brighton, Chris Foss, head of wine studies, says that he tries to check that students don't have too many illusions about the job. "It is agriculture after all, with agricultural working conditions and salaries," he says. "Practically all my students are mature, with an average age around 30, so they have a pretty good idea of what's involved."

Bob Lindo, owner of the award-winning Camel Valley vineyard in Cornwall, was just such a late starter. When he left the RAF at 38 he and his wife bought a sheep farm with a view to turning half of it over to winemaking. It was so successful that eventually he dropped the sheep side altogether. Success arrived relatively quickly, but Lindo is the first to admit that he had to adjust his lifestyle. The couple managed with only one car and luxuries were out.

When they entered the industry, there was no Plumpton College, which teaches viticulture and has a state-of-the-art commercial winery. Lindo recommends the college to his staff and sends them off to study there if they want a long-term career in wine.

In the absence of Plumpton, Lindo and his wife studied under Gillian Pearks, who got many winemakers started in the Eighties; the couple received professional advice from ADAS, the outfit that advises on environmental and rural matters, which at the time had a vine research station and a trained specialist. "We paid for the professional advice and planted 8,500 vines in five acres," says Lindo. "We just dug 8,500 holes and put them in."

Only a minority of people will able to buy a farm as their way into the market like the Lindos did. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) explains that young people can work in a variety of jobs including being a cellar hand in a winery and casual work during a harvest. They can follow this with a qualification. Likely career paths include vineyard management, quality control and buying.

British winemaking is more popular now than in the Eighties, but getting on to a course remains relatively straightforward. "We don't really select for our wine courses; if people meet the requirements, we try to accommodate them, but when the course is full, it's full," says Foss of Plumpton College.

"We aim to have about 20 students on the FdSc wine production, 20 on the foundation degree in wine business and 10 on the BSc viticulture and oenology."

After qualification, experience and the acquisition of a suitable farm, the rewards can be rapid if not particularly grand. The proprietor of a popular and well-run operation can expect an income of around £25,000 a year, although this will depend on a vineyard's size and levels of reinvestment. Any livelihood based on crops is not one for the short-term operator. Lindo, for example, bought the farm in 1982 but only began to pay himself a decent wage in 1992.

Clearly there's a difference between someone who regards their winery as a hobby and a professional business selling wine in quantity. In many ways the transformation of the Camel Vineyard was down to Lindo's son Sam, a maths graduate, who came in with a lot of ideas.

"He put a proper computerised accounting system in," says Lindo. "He was a statistician so he made forecasts and all sorts of things." He also put together a chilling system himself; the effect was that turnover increased twentyfold and the vineyard tripled in size. It now employs eight people and looks after 17 acres; a further 40 acres are grown under contract by other growers.

Defra suggests that a successful international wine grower could make £50,000 a year. It's worth bearing in mind that few people reach that level. This is a career for people who love the work.

Viticulture and oenology courses run at Plumpton College, Brighton ( www.plumpton.ac.uk) and

Coventry University ( www.coventry.ac.uk).

Wine and Spirit Education Trust: www.wset.co.uk

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