Always learning

It’s a relief to know I haven’t been barking up the wrong tree.

• www.ridgeview.co.uk • matt@ridgeview.co.uk•  01444 242040

On New Year’s Eve I posted something on Facebook about being in Australia to see in the 2000’s. I was then contacted by someone I met whilst staying at a Backpackers Hostel in Mildura, Victoria and he wished me Happy New Year. The hostel was a place you could go and find work, mostly on orange, avocado farms and of course vineyards.  I had a look to see if the hostel had a Facebook page, which of course it did. I was happy to see that the hostel not only had a Facebook page, but they also had numerous posts about viticultural workshops and vineyard training days that they now organise. What a brilliant initiative! Although my first vineyard job was in Clare Valley, the work I did around Mildura is what motivated me to change career. Returning to the UK and not really aware of a wine industry here, I met Chris Foss at the Plumpton College Open day and enrolled on the two-year HND Wine Studies course.

Studying again took a bit of getting used to; one day re-learning chemistry or plant biology, then another day learning how to use a pickup hitch on a tractor and in my spare time, crawling around in the undergrowth collecting specimens for the infamous weed identification assessment. During my second year I was told that Mike Roberts was looking for a student to work on the vineyard and in the winery, so I went along for an interview. 

My first day at Ridgeview was winter pruning; I think I was pretty quiet, maybe too quiet; I just got my head down and got on with it.  Respectfully observing and listening to what was going on around me, rather than trying to impose my newfound knowledge on my colleagues. I was taken on full time later that year upon completing my studies.  As far as I was concerned, I was still learning. The great thing about working with Mike was that he would say he was still learning too and over time we built a healthy, open and honest working relationship. We would discuss an idea, I would do some more reading on it and then we’d try it out. Some ideas would work out well and others not so well (spur pruning Chardonnay – I should have done more reading on that one, thankfully it was only a small trial).  The trials that don’t work out well or the mistakes made in the past are the ones I remember and learn from the most, whereas those that go well eventually become routine.  

Over time knowledge is accumulated but I am a forgetful person, so I have to keep refreshing my memory. The process of engaging with other industry professionals, training employees and showing visitors around the vineyard all helps with this and builds knowledge. Doing a technical write up or a presentation requires me still to do a lot of reading, using old course notes from my HND or Wineskills Masterclasses. Also, the books that I bought when studying gather little dust. Over the Christmas period when it wasn’t being used for sitting around and eating at, the dining table was a sprawl of open books and notes.

Having built a career in the UK wine industry, visiting or receiving visitors from another region of the world used to feel a little daunting. What if I’d been doing all of this really badly wrong? Then after a while I started to realise that we are often asking the same questions and facing similar challenges. This is a relief, knowing that I haven’t been barking up the wrong tree. 

Although I started off in Australia, I didn’t really have much idea about what I was doing or why. Thankfully there was one vineyard manager who saw I was keen and took the time to explain what I was doing and why; if I made a mistake he didn’t boot me off the property (not unheard of) but would talk to me about what I was doing wrong and why. A handshake and ‘sorry boss, now I understand, won’t happen again’ is all it took for me to stay there for almost two months, quite a long time out of a twelve-month visa. The owner even went to the trouble of writing a reference to take away with me should I need it in the future.

The International Cool Climate Wine Symposium in Canada this year is something I am looking forward to. A good opportunity to catch up with people I haven’t seen for a while, hopefully make new connections and of course to learn a lot. If it is as good as the one in Brighton in 2016, it’ll be a brilliant gathering and I’m sure I’ll come back with some new ideas; can’t wait!

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