Harvest ’23 at Stanlake Park
Let’s start with the headlines (and I’ll probably repeat this several times in my blog); the English harvest 2023 will be remembered as a bumper harvest with quantities far greater than we could ever have imagined. It was an unusual year with regards to the weather having a very warm dry couple of months followed by a grey and wet summer. There were times when no one could have predicted the results for this year, especially compared to the amounts produced just a few short years ago. The Indian summer arrived and the vineyards in England produced a spectacular abundance of all grape varieties.
This was my fifth harvest and it’s the time of year we all look forward to although the amount of work left us all relieved and shattered by the end, some six weeks later. Smaller teams and lack of weekend picking made for slow progress. Other vineyards who contract with Stanlake Park for their wine production also had bumper crops and this had a negative effect on our picking numbers as Nico, Will and Ryan (The A Team) were regularly busy elsewhere, crushing and cleaning well into the night/early morning to accommodate their deliveries.
We picked a total of 21 days (some shorter than others) with an average of 5.23 people per day (I do love a bit of analysis!). Special mention here to Thibault who started his first harvest and gave it his all as he always does when working in the Stanlake Park Wine Bar kitchen.
Let picking commence
The first day of harvest commenced on the 5th September (same day as 2022) in the Stallion Vineyard. The Siegerrebe grapes were amazing and, unlike previous years, had not been devoured by birds. Birds love the sweetness of the Siegerrebe grapes so whether they found another food source elsewhere or whether the extra foliage and Nico’s bird scarer (aluminium tape) frightened them off we don’t know for sure, but very few had been taken by birds this year.
As usual we picked the Stallion and Walled Garden vineyards first, followed by the white grapes in the Cricket Field Vineyard (Chardonnay and Optima). We left the Pinot Noir and Dornfelder to ripen further and headed to the large Ruscombe Vineyard to pick the Schönburger and Reichensteiner, these grapes were perfect and in huge quantities. We were joined here by a journalist/photographer from the Maidenhead Advertiser who wanted a story for the local paper. Despite their physical efforts, Will and Ryan discussed heading to the gym later whilst I considered heading for a nice lie down!
Rain stops play
Picking was cancelled on the 20th September due to heavy rain and the following day’s picking was brought to an early close due to similar monsoon weather. Luckily we lost very few days to weather this year as we had a few weeks of unseasonably warm and dry weather with a couple of days basking in temperatures above 24C!
Nico continued to ‘play mother’ and every morning at 11am he appeared with a flask of coffee and cannoli. On a few occasions we were treated to aragostine when the cannoli was running low. It’s hard to describe the sheer joy when Nico appears with his orange bag and we break for 5 minutes. It’s at this point when we have the obligatory selfie photo for the records. Tina (Stanlake Park’s Sunday Girl) agreed to pick on her birthday (miracles do happen) so Nico provided a candle with the cannoli and she was serenaded with a short burst of ‘Happy Birthday’ before getting back to work. Upon leaving the vineyard we spotted a deer munching a few grapes close to us which is something we don’t see too often these days.
On Saturday and Sunday (23rd/24th) we had bigger teams (including some family and friends) to help with the picking and we made good progress with the Schönburger grapes. Despite the mild weather, Joan (Stanlake Park shop) decided to wear four layers including her husband’s ski jacket. You could see the heat rising above her when she was picking. Sarah (Stanlake Park shop) did her first day’s picking and found it very therapeutic with only the grapes to think about. Sarah is a teacher so anything not involving children can be classed as therapeutic!
We continued picking over the next few days. Tina and I had a couple of minor cuts but everyone stayed injury free. However, our biggest enemy was the number of wasps! Whilst many were docile, having consumed a number of grapes, some remained vicious and we had five people stung including Adey (Stanlake Park’s groundsman) who managed to get stung twice. He did say that being stung twice was still better than picking up the abundance of fallen apples in the Walled Garden. Tina made her sting into a drama and her forearm and hand swelled up to twice its normal size so she spent a couple of days on anti-histamine tablets with her arm in a sling. Picking grapes can be a dangerous business!
As October got under way, our usual banter went up another level after Will had unknowingly rung Nico at 1.30am the previous morning. Needless to say, poor Will was the butt of all jokes for the rest of the day but, having worked with Nico for two years, he has built up a thick skin and takes it all in his stride. Tamsin was very candid when she picked one day and said she hates picking grapes but really loves the banter! We continued picking for a further two days but then put things on hold to allow Nico and Ryan to clear space in the cellar for the other vineyard’s deliveries.
The following week, Nico and Ryan continued to process other deliveries from the contract vineyards so it’s up to Will and I to pick a couple of rows of Triomphe grapes. Although Nico said we should finish by lunchtime it turns into an 8 hour slog which is definitely our worst day. Will and I left that evening suffering from severe PTSD – Post Triomphe Stress Disorder! On the positive side, we have very few Triomphe vines. Also, it’s good to have the youngest worker paired with the oldest for a day and we had some really good chats on topics ranging from horror films to romcoms to holidays around the world.
A couple of days later and it’s more bad news! The fork-lift has ceased to work so it’s back to the old ways for a day; Will and Ryan have to fork the grapes from the bins onto the conveyor belt into the crush-destemming machine. Thankfully, the suppliers arrived bright and early the following day and the fork-lift was soon fixed. There was also a ‘bang’ during last night’s pressing which caused concern and it appears that the inflatable ball in the top of the press has lost its outer layer but thankfully will continue to function with its other 2 layers and will see us through to the end of harvest. Phew!
We got to the penultimate day and had eight rows of Dornfelder left. The weather was a lot cooler and there was light drizzle. Lydia lifted everyone’s spirits with a supply of biscuits which were well received as was her delicious home-made chocolate and raspberry cake the week before. Natalia also treated us to some home-made brownies too. Napoleon said an army marches on its stomach but I also think he had grape pickers on his mind when he said that, it’s certainly true at Stanlake Park.
Into the home straight
Friday 13th is considered bad luck but not for us as it was our final day with three rows of Dornfelder left. All pickers were in a buoyant mood and the innuendos were flowing thick and fast with the morning turning into a ‘Carry On film’ (Carry On Picking!?). To quote Richard (Stanlake Park’s Retail Manager), “It’s great picking the big danglers!”.
Kerry and Lydia finished their morning shift whilst the rest of us retired to the garden for lunch and the traditional celebration wines. The Stanlake Brut went down rather quickly (as did the caterpillar cake) and Nico treated us to his exclusive dessert wine similar to Recioto which tasted wonderful.
Nico, Will and Ryan are the Harvest Heroes, working long hours for the whole duration of the harvest and giving it their all to see it through to the end. It was hard work and we probably still need a few days rest before we can say it was enjoyable. Picking over 50 tons(!) of grapes by hand with such a small team is no easy feat but now it’s over and the sun has set. We look forward to the next one. Could it possibly hit the heights of 2023?