As honorary president of the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), the intergovernmental organisation of which the UK is now a member, Australian-based international viticulturist Peter Hayes is able to maintain a broad connection with a wide array of issues confronting the global grape and wine industry, as well as with the experts within OIV member countries. With his experience mentoring the UK sector through the WineSkills programme, his elevated position and ‘birds’ eye’ view, Vineyard asks Peter Hayes for his valuable perspective on the UK industry. 

What positions do you currently hold? 

Beyond describing my prime focus as ‘assiduously avoiding retirement’, I maintain a wide range of interests and engagement across the wine sector, including university committees (Charles Sturt University, Australia). I am currently the Presiding Member for the Wine Australia Board Selection Committee, which nominates candidates for appointment to the Wine Australia Board, by the federal Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management; am the Independent Chair of the industry representative body Australian Grape & Wine, AGW’s Code Management Committee which encourages best-practice commercial interactions between grape growers and wine producers, and I am an AGW nominee to Wine Australia’ Geographic Indications Committee.

Internationally, I remain involved with the OIV, particularly through its Commission 1, Viticulture Expert Groups and I am currently President of ‘Lien de la Vigne’/’VineLink’, an organisation fostering public institution-private company engagement, communications and focus on critical issues for the wine sector.

How should the UK maximise the benefits of its OIV membership?

OIV membership is now across 48 members states, and additionally has several important observers, permitted to contribute to OIV work, although without voting rights. My experience suggests that optimal value shall be obtained by monitoring the emergence of key issues as defined in the OIV’s Strategic Plan and the Annual work plans, plus more direct engagement in issues which align with both the UK governmental and the UK wine sector’s priorities. Close, collaborative engagement between both shall make for a more coherent and effective coverage of key issues, especially where resources in people and funds are tight, and where coherency of views is important.

The OIV is not a regulatory body ‘per se’ but as a scientific and technical reference body, its views provide an important foundation for members states when establishing their policy and regulations.

What were your findings as WineSkills Viticulture Mentor? 

I was the WineSkills Viticulture Mentor for five years, between 2010 and 2015, and this role provided me a great introduction to the UK industry – and it seems to me that the WineSkills programme ‘in toto’ delivered a very timely and well-targeted suite of offerings to underpin a more professionally based wine industry – or to at least, accelerate and widen that professionalism.

There was palpable excitement around potential for the sector, and it seemed to me, well-placed. However, it was equally evident that this potential was not uniformly distributed across sites and businesses, nor was the stage of development uniformly balanced across vineyard production area and yield potential, winemaking capacity, and market development.

It was, and probably remains true, that the sector is essentially production driven rather than market-led, so inefficiencies and uncertainty or unpredictability in the vineyard translate into challenges in the other elements of the supply chain.

With a viticultural focus, and trying to avoid over-simplification, key issues were largely related to:

  • Site selection and amelioration for frost-risk, wind, and drainage
  • Pest and disease management, especially with reference to sustainability principles
  • Poor and unpredictable yields, and inter-seasonal variation in performance
  • Pruning technique, bud-number and yield targets, plus related crop, and canopy management
  • Soil management and vine nutrition
  • Annual and longer-term resource planning, labour, staff training and optimising systems
  • Impact of vineyard performance issues on profitability and business sustainability
  • Scaling vineyard size, and projected productivity to meet the intended or projected market demands. 

Have you witnessed progress and development within the businesses and sector?

I have seen a marked improvement in grower understanding of the potential for their planning, resource allocation and operations to manage and moderate the severe fluctuations in yield season-to-season. This development has continued over the years since. However, it remains that many growers and managers hold a view that they have little choice but to tolerate severe variability and assign it to yet another ‘it’s the UK, with terrible conditions at flowering, this season’, when in fact, vine condition and capacity, in large part dictated by conditions of, and management applied in the previous season, have an important part to play.

Seasonal conditions are well recognised to be of great consequence, but as managers, more could be done to mitigate the adverse impacts; education and training, professional support and accumulated experience are all of ongoing importance – as is industry-based peer support initiatives.

“Seasonal conditions are well recognised to be of great consequence, but as managers, more could be done to mitigate the adverse impacts; education and training, professional support and accumulated experience are all of ongoing importance, as is industry-based peer support initiatives.”

Are you currently involved with, or consulting to, any UK vineyard businesses?

I remain in contact with my industry colleagues, associates, and several longer-term friends and clients in the UK, but given the state of our world over the last 18 months and constraints upon travel, I have resorted to remote engagement with video platforms. However, these have enabled delivery of reasonably effective and timely consultation, problem solving, topical webinars, and even the development of some training materials. Nevertheless, it’s not the same as being there, where direct observation of sites and vineyards, and engagement with people in their work situations, does really make for a more fulfilling exercise for each party.

From a broader UK industry development perspective, I also have the privilege of interacting with Stephen Skelton and Luke Spalding in analysing the ICCWS-WineGB Yield Survey and with Alistair Nesbitt and members of WineGB’s Management Advisory Committee for R&D.

Any words of wisdom for UK producers and the UK industry?

It should be no surprise that I would advocate for a well organised and supported industry peak body (WineGB in this case) with a clearly articulated, and generally agreed set of priorities. Such a body cannot be all things to all people, scale and business philosophies being so broad, but the portfolio of high priority, strategic issues for industry development, should be sufficiently broad that all should gain net benefit.

Going into some specifics, the industry has much to gain from a well-developed, and resourced statistical base, from which to analyse and interpret as a basis for ongoing investment and development. My observations of the low response rates to the ICCWS-WineGB Yield Survey indicating that such data is under-valued and that its importance across everything from planning, policy, and regulation to finance and promotion is sorely under-recognised.

Deployment of such data might also see a focus on attaining a more synchronous or better balance in the investment across the sector, between vineyard capacity (better productivity, consistency, and predictability), winery, storage, and logistics (for sparkling still, and novel products), export and domestic market development, and vineyard/winery-related tourism (oeno-tourism).

A much clearer and stronger need for education and training, R&D underpinning innovation shall likely emerge and yet there is little recognition of the need, or even a mechanism, to invest sufficiently in these aspects.

Future challenges and opportunities

In my view, the changing climate shall likely present as a two-edged sword, and shall require adaptability, ingenuity, and innovation to mitigate the downside and realise from the upside. 

I do see the UK industry continuing to grow; however, it must focus on returning (and for some, retaining) profitability across the whole of the sector. Currently, much wine production and marketing is based on what amounts to a ‘subsidy’ from the vineyard, given that yields for many are so low, that at prices offered, many are unprofitable, in their own right. As vineyard production and grape supply grows, especially if market development and retention of the current premium for UK product is not maintained, this pressure will escalate dramatically.