In his first visit under the Wineskills mentor programme, US winemaker and guru Al MacDonald develops a ‘school report’ on the challenges faced in a relatively new and small cool climate region.

MacDonald acknowledges in his report that “it is my understanding that the weather conditions during the current vintage are some of the worst experienced in modern wine growing of the UK.”

He experienced climate conditions characterised by a cooler and wetter than average weather pattern that persisted well into the summer. These wet and cool conditions delayed timely planting, weed control, increased disease pressure, and contributed to poor fruit set in the more mature bearing vineyards.

He writes: “I was able to visit seven of the eight sites on the itinerary.  As this is a very small sub-set of the number of vineyards planted in the UK my comments are not intended to reflect the industry as a whole.  All of the vineyards visited were relatively young plantings. The oldest being in its sixth leaf and three of the sites were planted this year. There were very few clusters on the bearing vines and the clusters that did develop suffered from poor set and very late seasonal maturation. It is certain that desired ripeness and yield would be severely compromised this year. These vineyards and wineries would be operating at an economic loss this year.

“My observations are similar to the other experts invited to tour vineyards and wineries in the UK. The reports they have submitted should be seriously valued.  I found the visits to the vineyards very informative and will submit individual reports to each site visited. It is encouraging to see the enthusiasm of the new growers to the expanding UK wine industry.”

Education and training

MacDonald explains that Plumpton College offers a wide range of educational programmes and workshops.  The information provided on specific topics and available on their website should be helpful to the UK grower.

He writes: “The College has an operating vineyard and commercial winery for training and education. The practical aspect of these facilities will increase the number of competent industry personnel that receive training.  The Wineskills programme has brought experts from around the world and their observations have provided valuable insight to problems faced by the UK winegrowers.


A focus of his visit was to get an idea on how well the aspects of sustainability, environmentally sound practices, socially responsible organizations and economically viable operations over time were integrated into the sites visited. He was also asked to contact vineyards prior to the visit to determine what areas of concern they would like to discuss.

Weed Control: A number of the vineyards were interested in reducing or eliminating the use of synthetic chemicals in the production of grapes on their farms, of particular concern was the use of herbicides.  Management of under the vine vegetation comprised of using compost, mechanical weeding, and hand weeding.  These vineyards indicated that compost was readily available for use as mulch.  When herbicides were used it was often done once or twice by a hired contractor. It would appear that reliance on compost for weed suppression also presented problems.

Disease and pest control: A number of the vineyards desired organic control methods for disease suppression.  The number of chemical control methods is limited with an organic approach. The effectiveness of these control products could be improved with the installation of local weather stations for disease model prediction.  Timely canopy management is dependent on a readily available local labour force and most of these operations were done by hand.  If labour is not readily available in a timely fashion then mechanical methods (leaf removal, hedging, etc.) should be explored.

Social responsibility: This is rather difficult to define, but does included labour relations and the integration of the operation in the local community.  As most of the sites were relatively new to their areas it was a little early to determine how well the operations would fit into the local communities.  Potential conflicts that may arise include; How well would an organic vineyard fit in with conventional adjacent farms?  Would pesticide drift from adjacent farms be a concern to organically certified vineyards?  Would there be an increase in vehicle traffic on local roads if a winery is built and events and tastings planned?

Economic viability: Most of the sites visited lacked a long term written business plan. Some of the operations had just a general idea if more acres were to be planted and where the plantings would take place, or how much wine or grape sales would be needed to cover production costs. He writes: “The weather conditions this year will result in severe crop losses and financial hardship on many of the producers.  Growers in Oregon are able to purchase crop insurance policies to help protect against unusual weather events. I am not aware if any such insurance programmes are available in the UK.”


Al’s viticulture career began in 1982 when he planted and managed his 65 acre Seven Springs Vineyard in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Over the past 30 years he has served the Oregon wine industry as Chairman of the Oregon Wine Advisory Board, the Chairman of the Oregon Winegrower’s Association, and Presiden to fthe Low Input and Enology, Inc. (LIVE) sustainability certification programme. Al is a current member of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture. Al has also lectured on Pinot noir production in Oregon.

All WineSkills industry mentors reports are available to read and download  – from Spring 2010 to Summer 2012 – from the WineSkills mentoring page