Saturday, 3 March 2018

Winter Pruning and the State of Things

I came upon this interesting article by Francisco Romero with photos by Juan Carlos Toro and thought it would interest you too.

The sky is heavy with cloud but the rain hasn’t yet arrived. Until it does, activity doesn’t stop in the Calderín del Obispo vineyard which lies in the pago Balbaina, west of Jerez close to the Jerez - Rota, road, and here one can see a dozen workers busy pruning the vines with shears. Juan Cabrera is one of the longest serving. Juanín, as his co-workers know him, has been doing this job since 1993. “I learned it from two veterans, one on my right and the other on my left”, and he remembers them saying cut the dead stick and leave the green. He is one of twelve pruners in the team which works for about 70 days a year. It used to be more, but there is less manual work now as vineyard husbandry becomes ever more mechanised. “A few years ago there were 70 of us to do the harvest, and now there are ten” says Juanín who, while he talks, doesn’t stop cutting off branches which will later be collected by another team armed with rakes.

One of these is Juana Vázquez who has worked in the vineyard since 2006 and who works fewer days as time goes by. “Before, it was nine months non-stop, last year it was 38 days, just enough to keep me going for six months” she says. I only have this work, the rest of the year I don’t work, there is nothing out there. The pruning season coincides with other agricultural activities, she says, and in her native Espera (Cádiz) there is little chance of finding work. Still, she considers herself privileged. “At least I have this but friends of mine are looking for any opportunity to work. This year she hopes to at least equal the number of days she worked last year.

The 45 hectares of this vineyard are planted to three vine varieties: Tintilla de Rota, Tempranillo and Palomino, though the latter predominates. “The Tintilla is good but is more expensive and has lower yields” explains Diego Vázquez, Juana’s brother, pruner and team leader, and for whom the vineyard has become his passion. “Every day you learn something new” he says, “you go shaping new vines, and it is wonderful to shape a vineyard right from the start from the grafting through to a productive vine”. It was his father who introduced him to this world and since then he has continued to progress in an environment he now knows intimately. “I knew a few days ago that it would soon rain; when you can hear the aircraft from the Rota base, you know rain is on its way”, he says with conviction, repeating a piece of wisdom he learned from the veterans.

The casa de viña (vineyard house) is located at the top of the slope from where you can see half the province. To the east lies Jerez with the sierra in the distance, and to the south, the Bay of Cádiz. The building was constructed in the XVIII century and originally belonged to the Dominican monks who left their legacy here in the form of art, paintings mainly, and a chapel which the Guerrero family has preserved in perfect condition. According to Francisco Guerrero, one of the brothers who run the estate, it was his grandfather who began to exploit part of the land to provide a school to teach the workers’ children to read and write, a small bodega and a home for the vineyard manager in his forebears’ former residence, though this is hardly used now.

“I had thought of organising some sort of activity to develop wine tourism, but now at the age I am…” says Francisco, wine grower and president of Asevi-Asaja, the association of independent growers. “The vineyard is getting more and more mechanised because skilled labour is too expensive” he explains, since “the wine doesn’t sell for the price it should”, which produces a cascade effect forcing growers to reduce costs. He lists the vineyard practices which have been lost over time: “Now the vine bark is no longer peeled back to clear it of insects, pruning cuts are no longer painted with iron sulphate and citric acid, even the kind of pruning has changed from vara y pulgar to double cordon, which is more suitable for mechanisation”.

Guerrero comes from a family with decades in the world of wine. His grandfather founded Bodegas Soto which sold a famous ponche of the same name. It was he who added the “del Obispo” to the name of the estate which his grandchildren now run because that was the nickname of an old friend who used to complain that there were ever fewer trades (the word “oficio” also means a church service)  in the vineyards and that the growers were ageing. Guerrero says that “the vineyards of Jerez need more work than in other parts of Spain because the type of pruning is costlier”, which, along with the low price of a kilo of grapes (in Rioja the price is around 2 euros a kilo and in Jerez 0.35 euros) means that profits for growers are ever leaner. “It is not enough to cover costs” he points out, adding that “we are not paid for the quality of the grapes or the sacrifices we make”.

The pruning work, which started in December, is coming to an end.  The pruning team will be swapping their shears for other less physical work, but just as important. Soon they will be lowering the wires to allow the plants to bud and then raising them again in a few weeks to allow them to stand straight and for the grapes to grow properly towards the beginning of summer, although there is still plenty of time for that. Juanín is one of the survivors. “There used to be 20 of us but now we are barely ten or twelve” he says, letting it slip later that he wants to retire. He doesn’t have many years to go but he will have to wait till he is 65 since “in the countryside there is no early retirement”. When he and his co-workers retire, who will there be to do their jobs?

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