Through the grapevine Diversifying with a vineyard can be a financially astute move for farmers if they know all the risks and challenges Dr Alistair Nesbitt
With direct farm subsidy payments set to reduce after 2021, farmers are looking at additional income streams to keep farms sustainable. There are many ways to be involved in the English wine sector and not all require vine-to-bottle production. It is possible to grow grapes under contract for established wineries; sell grapes on the stock market or even make wine for others. Scarff farm vineyard: James Scarff My father and I enrolled in a viticulture for dummies course a few years ago. We’re farmers and growers, so we decided to just grow the grapes because that’s our expertise, but there’s still a whole business infrastructure and forecasting to put in place. We contacted consultants who set up and install vineyards and supply everything. Our business consultants helped us with a ten-year forecast business plan, both with and without the vineyard, to see the profitability of both scenarios and make sure it was all sound. Vinescapes talked to us about frost risk and climatology. Then the bank manager came out. I contacted wineries in Sussex and Hampshire to see if they would be interested in us supplying them with grapes. We then worked out a five-year deal with Ridgeview in Ditchling, Sussex. In May 2017, we planted the first vines on 20 acres in Suffolk. 22 Journal July/August 2020
wine drinkers in the UK
3m vines planted
UK sales predicted to reach 40m bottles
average cost of a bottle of still white wine
average cost of a bottle of English sparkling wine
We grow the three classic grapes for English sparkling wine, which is the big seller and award winner: 50 per cent Chardonnay, 15 per cent Pinot Meunier and 35 per cent Pinot Noir. Costing the project You can grow grapes on a budget if you do all the work yourself. Some of this was in our plan, but we didn’t have time to do it all ourselves. When we bought the tractor and sprayer, we went for reliability and a higher cost than I’d budgeted. I bought a new sprayer from a German dealer and paid in euros which saved me £6,000. Then there’s frost protection – we went down the route of cold air drains from Australia. We got a 40 per cent leader grant for the fans, which is still available. You have to go into it understanding that you will be writing cheques for four years before you get any money coming back in. Which means you need a bank manager that understands your business and the project well. It’s a long-term project with a 35-year life. I think you have to invest early. Don’t assume you can spread expenses over that 35-year span. Take a deep breath and buy that fancy recycling sprayer. Cutting corners means cutting the quality of grapes. I would say you need to invest close to £30,000 per hectare for something of this size, plus the cost of equipment. The profit is a complete turnaround compared to wheat, which is relatively easy to grow. For us, the biggest risk is frost. Our business plan says we will get payback in year nine if we don’t have frost. Lots of factors are out of your control. Weather is important. Grapes need some rainfall to replenish and keep growing but towards harvest time from the end of September to the beginning of October you want dry, bright, sunny weather and a good site on a south-facing slope. Having the right people around you is important; an agronomist, a vineyard manager. Delegate, and let them answer the questions. I’m still learning, we’re only three years in, so now I’m about 80 per cent confident about my decisions but I think there’s a risk in making all the decisions yourself without talking it through. For more updates on James’ story on Twitter visit @JamesScarff.