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Jefford on Monday: Defeating Beowulf

Heavy industry, light industry, an industrial estate, industrial units, industrial output, the Department of Trade and Industry: have I got your attention? Are you feeling, um, excited? Are you panting to know more?

I thought not. We’ll return to industry later, but let’s first set our compass at something very different: English wines. There 419 vineyards or more (these are 2011 figures), and a total of 1,384 ha and rising. Gosh, that’s one-quarter of the number of planted hectares in St Emilion. Set aside a few of the large vineyards and well-equipped wineries owned by the amply financed, and the average holding is probably under 3 ha. Imagine a few parcels of vines, hidden away on widely scattered, hedge-quartered, copse-strewn hillsides in a variety of farming enterprises, with sometimes makeshift wine-making equipment squeezed into the ends of thatched barns and out-houses.

It has been a spring and summer of almost unredeemed misery for English winegrowers thus far: cold, wet, muddy, disease-ridden and tardy. The ‘summer months’ have a while to run, but the odds on total crop failure shorten with every dud week, and the prospects for August don’t look good. This slowly sinking sensation is all too familiar to those who have been at it for a decade or two, and who can remember zero-harvest vintages in the past as vividly as any of us might remember a long spell of illness. I hope, of course, the forecasts are utterly wrong, and the rest of August turns out to be a belter, followed by a long, languid autumn.  

All wine-growing, of course, is subject to climatic whim; extend the experiment over a long-enough period, and the sum of those whims will be what govern the economic success or failure of the enterprise. Every year, moreover, is different, and one of the deep joys of wine is that those differences can be tasted – as, of course, can the differences in wine based on the precise place in which the vines are growing, and the differences based on wine-making approaches and techniques. No matter where it comes from, wine is a giant carnival of difference.

The contrast with any kind of industrial ideal, in other words, couldn’t be greater. Winegrowers are not sourcing components and assembling them in an identical manner, year after year, using a production line. They aren’t selling a product of predictable consistency and reliability, whose only interest to consumers is function. This isn’t even true of the world’s biggest wine companies, and it certainly isn’t true of the exciting, heroic, against-the-odds attempts by the plucky few to steal thunder from the gods; survive the dark, Beowulf-haunted, catastrophe-strewn odyssey of English viticulture; and thereby bring a little Latin solace to English fields. That, at least for most consumers and many producers, is what English wine-growing and wine-creation represents.

I point all of this out only to explain my dismay when receiving, last week, a 606-word press release from English Wine Producers in which the word ‘industry’ is mentioned no less than eight times (“UK wine industry”, “our industry”, “a panel of industry judges”, “a very positive industry event” &c. &c.). Plumpton College, too, has a tendency to use this grossly pejorative term (“the industry is growing rapidly in importance”, I read on its website), and the English Wine Producers website homepage is badged “The Marketing Association of the English Wine Industry”.  

Do England’s wine producers want to kill us all with boredom? Why do they want the precious, difficult creations they have struggled to bring into the world considered with no more respect that we would give to an extension lead from B&Q? Why do they want to assume for themselves all of the glamour and excitement once mustered by the assembled board of British Leyland?  

I’ve never seen the word ‘industry’ yoked to ‘wine’ in France, Italy or Spain. No matter what the scale, grape-growing in continental Europe is considered profoundly agricultural, and the transformation of grapes to wine a culturally significant piece of craftsmanship which, at best, can approach the status of art.

The press release named Olly Smith English Wine Communicator of the Year (well done, mate), Ian Edwards of Furleigh Estate Winemaker of the Year (a fine achievement, sir) and Chapel Down 2010 Bacchus Reserve Wine of the Year (I can’t wait to taste it). Olly (kudos!) appears to have comprehensively failed to mention ‘the industry’ in commenting on his award; indeed he even used dangerously interesting phrases and clauses like ‘massive fan’, ‘these guys work incredibly hard’ and ‘popped the magnum’.  

You may think this is trivial. I’d say that nothing matters more. Words are the way we construct our world; they are our home. High-risk agriculture is industry’s antonym. And consumers want wines to spill excitingly into their glasses lashed to the back of stories, of drama, of life itself.  

Written by Andrew Jefford

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