Elham Valley Vineyard is not large nor is it particularly visible from the road as you drive through Barham near Canterbury and yet it is a vineyard with one of the biggest hearts you will find anywhere in the world. To borrow a line from one of my favourite films, it is difficult to write about this vineyard without running out of adjectives.
Peter Stratton arrived at The Fifth Trust a little under three years ago having left his previous role in the travel industry due to Covid-19. As social enterprise manager for the charity, Peter ensures that any money that is raised through the social enterprises, including the vineyard, the garden centre and café as well as the garden services business and a woodshack is returned to the charity so that it further enriches the lives of the students – the woodshack makes beautiful bespoke furniture as well as small things like the post markers for the vineyard.
Having arrived at The Fifth Trust, Peter was faced with a vineyard that did not have a manager and had been neglected due to a combination of factors including Covid-19, and Peter has since become a true leader within the vineyard team.
It is important to remember that the main focus for the 55 strong team of teachers, instructors, supervisors and carers at The Fifth Trust is the students. Whilst the wines are available through the café and the garden centre, the day to day running of the site is more complex than that of a truly commercial vineyard. “Our staff are looking after students all day every day, so their first thought is not how to look after the vineyard,” commented Peter.
The unruly vineyard needed help and the inaugural Vineyard & Winery Show of November 2021 at Detling is a pivotal point in this story. “I had to learn very quickly how to care for vines and I saw that there was a wine show going on and I thought I will get myself along to that,” said Peter. Someone suggested that Peter spoke to Hutchinsons agronomist Tim Ferris and on that day a greatly beneficial relationship began. “We are very dependent upon the generosity of people like Tim and many volunteers including corporate companies that undertake volunteer days. Travel company Saga provide volunteers once a month and the University of Kent at Canterbury have released a film that encourages their staff to volunteer at The Fifth Trust and other charities,” Peter added.
“When I came by in November 2021 of course it was the end of the season, and I could see that there was a fair amount of disease on the wood. 2021 was a horrible year and it became clear that pruning was going to be quite a challenge,” said Tim. That initial pruning took place between Christmas and New Year and Tim called on the aid of his own sister Jen along with Peter and other volunteers, to do the remedial work. “Tim’s generosity seems to know no bounds along with that of his family,” commented Peter with an air of gratitude.
“We had short canes, not a lot of growth points and at the time a bit of a dodgy trellis. We pruned the Pinot Noir very, very hard,” said Tim. Despite working full time, Tim explained that he wanted to volunteer his free time to the project “as an immigrant to this country that is how you meet people and make friends,” he said. “If you need help I will help, I don’t care if we met yesterday.”
This remarkably generous spirit is uncommon, and I ask where he thinks it comes from? Tim credits his upbringing in Africa (Zimbabwe to be precise) with this attitude. “In Africa you are who you are because of the people around you; it’s called the Ubuntu spirit – I am because we are,” he explained. He readily admitted that as an agronomist he has enjoyed the practical element at Elham Valley Vineyard, putting in the end posts and helping this small area of vines to become both secure and tidy for the future. Tim has also enjoyed the interpersonal side of vine growing alongside his scientific approach and has found that there have been real benefits to him as well, Peter now a firm friend and mentor.
One of the other things that was important to the improved health of the vineyard was a consistent spray regime. Since the vineyard did not have anyone with a licence to spray, Peter tried reaching out to the vine growing community but ultimately someone from the organisation was sent away to gain the spray licence required and a new member of the garden business team was also employed, both of whom now maintain a healthy spray regime with help from Tim and Hutchinsons.
Peter is very quick to explain: “Those guys will come in at 5am to spray and then will spend a day teaching or instructing the students.” The heart and dedication that everyone here puts in is reflected in the happy smiling faces of the students that you meet in the café or in the grounds. “Harvest time the students particularly love,” Peter continued.
Tim has a strict regimen of vineyard jobs in place at Elham Valley Vineyard. “When a job needs doing, I try to be here for at least part of that job to demonstrate how to do it.” Peter quickly added: “That is usually at weekends, so Tim gives an enormous amount of his personal time.”
“I come here, and the staff are giving of their time, and I am giving my time,” Tim added. It is clear that Tim really enjoys passing on his skills to others. “My grandfather was one of the first vine growers in Zimbabwe, he planted the vineyard in 1958 and my uncle took over from him. Grapevines were around the house when I was a child, harvest was at Christmas time and my aunt and uncle would provide grapes to the local high school for packed lunches. I learned to prune vines when I was 13; it was what we did,” he explained.
During his career Tim has also worked at VineWorks and with Mousehall Country Estate, Danbury Ridge and Ambriel Sparkling before having a conversation with Vineyard magazine contributor Rob Saunders who then encouraged him to join Hutchinsons.
“For me a highlight this year with Elham Valley was pruning with the students. They were helping to pull out, and, as we were going through the vineyard, we were playing eye-spy,” said Tim with a beaming smile.
Incorporating the skills passed on by Tim, members of staff, Matt Whitehouse and Sam Ozaktanlar, who are trained horticulturists, run the garden services business, log delivery business and forest skills that are offered to the students as an activity – Matt and Sam are taking the lead with the hands-on work done in the vineyard.
The tidy cultivated vineyard that we see today would not have been possible without professional help. Tim is keen to point out that Hutchinsons have been incredibly supportive of the charity. There have also been generous donations from companies such as Cloud Agro who provided fertiliser rich in organic matter, Bekaert who supplied 1000m of free trellis wire as well as Sencrop who have donated a weather station which has helped to implement a more informed spray regime in addition to the Hutchinsons Omnia platform. In the near future, VineWorks will be supplying vines to plant six rows of Solaris.
Solaris has been specifically chosen for its disease resistance and Tim explained that he has family living in Norfolk and Solaris is making some great wines in this region.
The current wines that are available predate Peter and Tim. These include a Sparkling White 2015 using the Seyval Blanc made by winemaker Ulrich Hoffmann and a Blanc De Noirs 2015. Two vintages of the still white Seyval Blanc are also available. They are strikingly different and Peter’s passion for the vineyard becomes clear when he explained: “They are so different but that is the beauty of wine growing, celebrating that difference, and not producing something that tastes the same year in and year out. The character that comes out of both of those wines, the same variety, the same vines, the same place simply different weather and perhaps management, I find that really exciting. For me it is what we should celebrate in winemaking.” The care that Tim and Peter have put into the vineyard should also be reflected in the wines produced and from the 2023 harvest Elham Valley Vineyard are hoping to release a still rosé with a 2022 Sparkling Rosé also in production.
Peter and Tim explained that they are now working with local winemaker Defined Wine. Defined Wine willingly waived the minimum quantity requirement in order to help the charity produce wines from their small plot of vines.
Peter has been running wine tours this season for the general public. The wine tour with tasting and Charcuterie board has been really popular and is available by appointment. It is good to know that Peter’s enthusiasm will have been passed on to all those who have signed up to tour this wonderful little spot in east Kent.
Tim mentioned that the vineyard is hoping to apply for the Sustainable Wines of GB certification. “Yes, it’s a small vineyard but we want to be conscious of what we do,” he said. “As a charity ourselves we have to be more environmentally aware and sitting in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the Elham Valley we have to be completely mindful of how we manage this site,” added Peter.
As we tour the site it is amazing to see how important the vineyard is to those who are students here. The café and woodworking shop border the vines at the centre of the site and Peter explained that there are some students that use these facilities who originally came to The Fifth Trust in the 1980’s and are still part of the trust today. What is known as ‘Rose Walk’ is a central pathway that is accessible to those who have come to the café and members of the public can take a moment to enjoy a cup of tea surrounded by vines in a place that is focussed on providing an enriching life experience for everyone who visits.
Tim explained that the vineyard has had to implement changes slowly. The trellis system is a perfect case in point, where it was restored in two parts. From January to March 2022 the Seyval had a new trellis system installed and from January to March 2023 the Pinot Noir also had the trellis installed. Some of the end posts are not as perfect as Tim would have liked but the job has been done and, despite the irregular end posts, all looks to be in good condition for the future. Tim is quite pragmatic as he walks the vines pointing out where there is some recurrence of downy mildew or leaf chlorosis due possibly to an iron deficiency owing in part to the high pH of the soil or where vines are showing signs of other deficiencies such as magnesium and phosphorous. In a vineyard where you literally have to beg and borrow supplies and equipment, choices have to be made. “The Pinot has had more attention than the Seyval this year because you have to pick your battles,” he said.
It is important to recognise and thank all those who have helped to support the vineyard (some who wish to remain anonymous) in its journey so far and it would be great if there are any more companies who would like to work with Elham Valley Vineyard and The Fifth Trust in the future. “On average we produce 1,200 to 1,500 bottles a year and with the increased support we have received we are hoping to increase this to 2,000 bottles. We have two unofficial partnerships with local wine merchants, Corkk in Canterbury and a wine shop in Hythe but we would like to have some help to distribute our wine. We have had a local couple come and sample the wines and purchase it for their wedding, and we would like to work more in this area.”
As my visit at Elham Valley Vineyard comes to a close my attention turns to how human connections are so vital in life, but also in the small viticultural community. Peter attended the Vineyard & Winery Show in 2021 looking for help with this fantastic project that is valuable in more ways that can be described here. From that one in-person meeting, so much has transpired. It is my hope that the industry keeps working together to support ventures such as Elham Valley Vineyard for many years to come.