The Most Important People in the Wine Industry?

Many would say it’s the winemakers who craft the vintages who are the most valuable people in the industry, others may argue it’s the owners who fund the purchase of vineyards and provide financial capital, perhaps it’s the wine marketing department or even the consumer. However to make great wine you need good grapes, and this wouldn’t be possible if it were not for the dedication of the migrant vineyard workers.

If you took a road trip into the English vineyards it would strike you how much work was being done in the hundreds vineyards throughout the year. Everywhere you look there were labourers pruning vines, managing the canopies, braving cold, damp, muddy terrains, with frosty fingers and aching backs on a daily basis while getting ready for the first buds of spring for the 2018 vintage.

Good wine doesn’t just come from the winery, wine grapes are a technically challenging crop to manage and are threatened by the serious shortage of agricultural labour. Migrant labour is now recognised as the backbone of the industry among the large-scale growers. The two UK specialist viticulture labour suppliers have specifically focused exclusively and predominately on Romanian workers. Without their dependability, hardworking ethics in terms of productivity, skill, speed and work rate many UK vineyards would be finding it much harder to finish their pruning, harvest, etc. Due to the slow uptake of domestic workers to take up careers within the viticulture sector we are still short of vineyard labour, our migrant workers are not replacing domestic employees, they are generating growth.

Wine GB statistics show that 5.9 million bottles of English wine were sold in 2017: that’s an increase in sales of 31%. This continuing trend will see another 1.4 million vines planted this month. On average there are 2100 workers employed within the industry (Wine GB 2018) and along with the requirements of other fruit growers, competition for labour is intense. Labour providers operating best practice are now offering end of season bonus schemes to encourage employees to return. At Vine-Works we see 90% of our skilled workers returning year on year and do not see these workers as transient or seasonal workers, but permanent members of staff (we try to allocate the same teams to customers where possible).

Wine GB is in talks with the NFU to jointly lobby Whitehall to ensure any post-Brexit deal, in regards to migrant seasonal workers are guaranteed and continue to be part of the success story. The ALP have said that following the ministers’ evidence
session, Neil Parish EFRA committee chair said the committee had “little confidence” that real action was being taken to ensure that a seasonal workers’ scheme for the agricultural sector was being put in place. He called for clarity for business and workers from the government.

To attract more domestic workers into the industry and commit long term, the Wine GB committee is now working closely with Plumpton College which is launching a new programme at Level 3 (equivalent to A levels) in viticulture. This one-year full-time programme is designed for those who want to gain the practical skills and knowledge to enter our industry at the vineyard operative level. Wine GB
want to help more colleges around the UK to offer this type of course. Wine GB is also hoping to have talks with DEFRA to structure a long-term dedicated apprenticeship scheme for school leavers.

Workers need to know exactly how to prune the vines and how much canopy to leaf strip, with every task being key to both fruit yield and quality. Labour shortages may lead to increased mechanisation for larger vineyards, but the cost of this is deemed too much of a stretch for smaller vineyards and quality is compromised at every stage.

For the wine drinker, the diversity of smaller independent vineyards and wineries brings only good news, but these smaller operators would also be the most vulnerable if there were increases in production costs, if the labour shortage were to get significantly worse. The migrant workers will have played the biggest part in the thousands of tonnes which will be harvested this year. So next time you have a glass of English sparkling wine make a toast to them and say ‘Noroc’ to all their hard work!

Published in Vineyard Magazine – May 2018

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