Sunday, October 13, 2013

Budget 2014 - the beforemath....

It’s late Sunday evening and I’m about as far away from Irish news as could be possible. In fact, I’m surrounded by millions of tiny fruits flies, covered in bits of dried grape “gunk” and I look like someone just split my head open with an axe – but thankfully it’s just fermenting grape juice.

But even here, the Budget looms large. Not so large that we’ll all take a break on Tuesday afternoon and gather round the internet radio and listen to Minister Noonan’s speech – but more that whatever happens in terms of any changes to Excise Duty has a direct impact on the success, or otherwise, of the endeavours of all those around me. It seems inconceivable that the Minister takes more than the average winemaker gets for labouring all year – but I’m probably a bit too close to it all at the moment……

However, I have been asked to write an “opinion” piece on the Budget and what is announced by Minister Noonan on Tuesday. I just thought I might give it a go now – get it out of the way, in advance of the budget – just in case I fall into a vat of fermenting juice, or get abducted by aliens, or win the Lotto…

So here’s my piece on what happened in Tuesday’s Budget, before it happens…..

Yesterday’s Budget brought a mixed bag of changes for the Irish Wine trade. It has been apparent for a good while now that the lack of an effective lobby group – or indeed any group at all that represents wine importers and retailers exclusively – has meant that our little voices are never really heard. The big boys looking after beer and spirits can make a lot of noise – look what happened to wine at the last Budget.

But at least there has been some relief – albeit possibly temporarily – and for once there seems to be some joined-up thinking in relation to the taxation of alcohol in Ireland.

-          The 50 cents per bottle (incl. Vat) reduction in Excise Duty for Wine is most welcome. With falling sales and smaller independent wine retailers feeling the pinch – actually more like getting whacked over the head with a mallet – it would be nice to think the Minister took heed of our plight. The reality is that it was more likely to be potential EU pressure on the disproportionate taxation of wine that brought about this reversal. And any budget is always a mix of give and take… the take will come later.

-          The increase of 10 cents (including Vat) on a pint of beer seems fair in relation to the way in which other alcohol, primarily wine, has been taxed. It brings the relative taxation of the two much closer together – something that should have been recognised sooner. This additional revenue will more than make up for that lost by reducing the Excise on wine.

-          The commitment given by the Minister to introduce legislation to ban below cost selling of alcohol is long overdue and very welcome. The incongruity of raising taxes on alcohol with protecting “Health” as the reason, whilst simultaneously allowing it to be sold by the choice of the retailer at the same price of a large bag of crisps never seemed to bother the Minister. But at least the message seems to have got through. Below cost selling of alcohol is not only irresponsible, but it also costs the State as the retailer can claim a Vat rebate on the difference between the cost price vs. the (lower) sales price.

-          A reorganisation of the licencing charges is also welcome. It undoubtedly favours the smaller, independent retailer – but why shouldn’t it? We should be protecting diversity – and those who sell more, should pay proportionally more. This also fits with the Health objectives. Holding the current annual fee the same for wholesalers and retailers with turnover of less than €750,000 from all alcohol sales, and increasing it by 0.5% of turnover above this level makes sense.

-          The proposal to introduce a so-called “lid tax” is potentially the most contentious issue. Thankfully the Minister has given notice of his intention to legislate in this area in the future– rather than introduce an ill-conceived scheme in this Budget without due consideration. The potential legislation is complex – would it be a flat tax on all sales revenue, or different rates based on alcoholic strength? And will all alcohol be taxed fairly and proportionally? Furthermore, the idea for this tax grew from the desire to find a replacement source of revenue for sporting organisations who say they will lose out if alcohol-related sponsorship of sporting events is banned. So would the revenue from this tax be ring-fenced for sporting bodies – and what is the exact legislation proposed in relation to the sponsorship ban? So there are many complex issues to consider –and if it is to be done successfully and intelligently, it takes time -  but it will most likely lead to some form of increases in the next Budget, but thankfully not for now.
So overall, from a purely wine-related perspective it was a welcome budget.

But was it……?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Ho Ho Ho - or - Hoe Hoe Hoe

The two sound the same, but the huge difference in physical exertion is very dramatic! Neither are particularly photogenic though!

Vines from the nursery
Preparing them for planting - the green wax covers the graft between rootstock and vine
Surprisingly, the planting of a new vineyard is rather unimpressive from an equipment point of view. Of course you can have the vines planted by machine – even a satnav controlled machine to ensure exact spacing between vines and rows, but we opted for the good old-fashioned planting by hand. Well, more like planting with the special fork-like metal rod that inserts the vine roots into the ground as you stamp heavily on it – but not too hard that you actually break the young vine. Of course, all of this is after everything has been measured by hand – or bits of wood and string in our case. We decided to go for 65cm between the vines in each row (so we will have a short shoot and low yield) and 2.2 metres between the rows, so we can fit a tractor between them when necessary.

Planting was quick, fun and very fulfilling….!

Oh, if only a new vineyard could just be that easy….

It all looked wonderful for the first few weeks. Then the weeds started…. With a new vineyard you have a couple of choices – or maybe “cheats”. Firstly you can decide to cover each new vine with a white plastic “sheath”. This protects the vine to a certain extent from hungry foragers such as rabbits and deer (unless you have your vineyard fenced – we don’t) but it also allows you to spray the soil around the vines with weedkiller as the vines are protected. However the downside is that if it gets very hot during the summer, the vines can sweat and wilt in the plastic coverings. 

Notice the areas that have been sprayed with weedkiller

The other “cheat” is that you can opt not to use plastic sheaths, but apply a pretty heavy dose of weedkiller onto the surrounding soil immediately after the vines are planted – before the new shoots break the wax seal. Again, the vines are in theory protected – and the weeds are zapped.

We opted to do neither – mainly because the old land has not had pesticides on it for about 15 years and we want to try and keep them to a minimum. But the trade-off is weeds – and plenty of them. Not just weeds that grow in the surrounding soil, but weeds that creep, crawl and attempt to smother your vines – hello convolvulus!

The vines are too small to use any form of mechanisation, so the only way to deal with them is to take out a good old-fashioned hoe and start bashing away…

All 1,623 of them…

In rows up a steep hill…..

Clearing an 80cm wide path all the way up…..

In 30 degrees Celsius heat…

At the rate of about 110 vines per 120 minutes…

It’s funny how you can start to see the attraction of pesticides…

Job done - temporarily....

Anyway, job done – and the vineyard looked like a perfectly trimmed front lawn! Until the weeds started again….!

They're coming back....

But we kept at it – and now as Autumn approaches we’ll get a break – until next Spring…

Off With Their Heads

Ok, not another rant about Excise Duty – but don’t worry, plenty more of those to come…

For anyone who can follow the bizarre timeline of this Blog, we’re now jumping back in time to May of this year. Readers will know that we had been clearing and preparing a a new vineyard for Modra Frankinja (Blaufrankisch) with a view to planting some 1,600 vines that will bear fruit in three years time – and for many more years to come…

But there’s always a shortcut! The planting of vines – and waiting – is all very much part of the natural rhythm of a vineyard (although there’s plenty of work to be done – big whinge coming up..), but experimentation is also fun!

Fritz Becker in Pflaz had mentioned casually that they were getting some older vines “head” grafted to Pinot Noir – there are various teams of specialist “grafters” who work their way through Europe each Spring and field-graft a chosen new variety onto an existing rootstock. The idea being that the new “vine” gets the benefit of older, established roots (and potential complexity), along with the advantage that the fruit-bearing part of the pant will produce fruit the following year – no 3-year minimum wait!

Apparently it became very popular in California some years back following the success of the film Sideways – Merlot fell out of fashion and growers needed Pinto Noir – and fast! Here are a few pretty enthusiastic converts..

Technically it’s called T-Bud grafting – and there are many varied opinions about how easy or difficult it is to perform – and how indeed to actually perform it in the first place. I came across a couple of videos and the odd document – but after that, there isn’t much other than individual practical experience.

So I decided to give it a go! To say that locals through I was a bit mad was an understatement! Firstly, I had to get some buds for the grafting – and the only place was the nursery where we had just purchased the young MF vines. Essentially I was asking them to give away their product for free – they make their money by doing the grafting over the winter onto young rootstock and here was me going, “can I have some of those buds and I’ll take them away and do it myself please…” But surprisingly, they agreed. Probably because they thought I was mad. 

The next challenge came when wielding a saw in the vineyard – quite simply, you have to cut the whole top off the existing vine. No half measures. I have chosen to behead a row of old Sipon vines. A few friends dropped by to see if I really would go through with it – and shook their heads in disbelief. “It will never work….”

Ooops - the top just fell off... honest..

Chopping off the tops of the wines wasn’t the problem though. Everything I had read or watched was pretty clear about what to chop, where to chop, what incisions to make in the bark etc. – but all also mentioned “white tape” to bind the graft once completed. But what type of “white tape”? There are many, many options – and of course none seemed suitable!

So I started with sliver/back duct tape! Well, it was all I had to hand. Then I realised it might not hold the bind so well in the rain (as the seal needs to be closed to avoid contamination) and I went looking for an alternative option. I settled on masking tape – it has great grip, some elasticity (important as graft grows) and seemed to be pretty weather resistant.

May - job done!


June - early indications looked promising
But for any budding (ha – no pun intended!) grafters out there planning to behead your vines I can now exclusively reveal that plain old masking tape will kill the grafts! It must be something in the glue compound, but every single graft I did that was sealed with the masking tape failed. Most of the ones done with the ugly duct tape worked!  Months later (jump forward to August) and some of the grafts are looking really healthy. Next year the will bear fruit. Success!

August - a successful graft - but notice silver duct tape!
Some of the older vines better watch out next Spring – might give it another go with proper tape!