So you knew you could take an apprenticeship in plumbing, and your hairdresser did one as part of her training, but did you know you could do an apprenticeship in wine?
Yes, you read that right, Plumpton College have developed an apprenticeship in viticulture, making it possible to become a ‘wine apprentice’, learning about everything from how to prune and harvest vines right through to how to drive a tractor. With their first apprentice, Jacob Evans, about to finish and start his vineyard career, when Plumpton got in touch we were intrigued to find out more.
But does the UK really have much call for vineyard workers?
Well actually, yes and in fact, this is an industry that has been steadily growing over the last few years as the popularity of England’s sparkling wine has grown throughout the world. It’s definitely not a career anyone here at Training and Courses had considered before (and we like our wine!) so when Chris Foss, Head of Wine Department at the college agreed to chat, we couldn’t wait to pick his brains...
When I first heard about the viticulture apprenticeship, I have to say I was quite surprised; England isn't really a big name on the wine map compared to the likes of, say, France or Spain – is it actually worth studying? Are people really going to end up with jobs afterwards in the UK?
I mean, the industry is doing really, really well and it’s growing very fast. At the moment there's a big shortage of people in viticulture, you know, vineyard people. So yes, they will get jobs, and they’ll probably rise quite rapidly through the ranks up to vineyard management. There are a lot of people buying land and setting up vineyards and they're looking for qualified people to run them.
So do you think England will make its name on that wine map in the future?
It will never be as big as France, Spain, Germany or Italy because they are all huge producers, but we're increasing our acreage by about 7% a year. Whereas their industries are not really moving forward, the English wine industry is taking off in leaps and bounds.
Plenty of opportunities for apprentices then?
Definitely. And in terms of studying it, it's a worldwide industry; they're looking for vineyard managers in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and even in parts of Europe. So whether apprentices want to eventually work in the UK or elsewhere, there are a lot of opportunities to come.
Would you say that the skills people will gain on this apprenticeship are transferable and could be used in vineyards abroad, or are they unique to vineyards in the UK?
There are some things we don't deal with, such as irrigation and a few other areas, but otherwise they can definitely be used in other wine producing areas.
What is it like day-to-day being a viticulture apprentice?
Well it's a two year course and they need to be employed in a vineyard and then for one day a week they are at Plumpton. It's a mixture; there's some generic work to do with health and safety and possibly on English and maths, depending on their level. Then they have a whole series of different choices – most of the units the students will do are joint with the horticulture apprentices but we also deliver the vineyard specific ones. We put them through a tractor driving course, so they learn how to drive a tractor and we show them how to use all the vineyard machinery. Most of what they learn is done on the job, but we cover the technical stuff at the college and hopefully make sure they do it properly!
One question we had a bit of a debate about in the office – do you have to be over 18 to study this because of drinking laws?
Viticulture apprenticeships are vine growing apprenticeships so we would expect them to spend time in the winery, certainly. Our apprentice did and learnt about the harvest, labelling and bottling and things like that. But it’s not a wine making apprenticeship. So age isn't a problem. It's actually designed for 16 year olds.
So they don't get any freebie bottles of wine to take home with them then?
No (laughs)! All bottles of wine are accounted for!
We thought that might have been one of the perks of the job! So what kind of background do the students that take this apprenticeship have? Are they mostly straight from school or do you get many mature students?
Well to be fair, the apprenticeship has only been going for two years. We’ve got our first student - Jacob - finishing next week. Generally the sort of people this is suited for and the applicants we get are school leavers. We do get others as well but the City and Guilds Level Two, which is what we award, is designed for 16-19 year olds, so that's who we would encourage to go for it.
And what do they do afterwards?
Well for an employer, having an apprentice is a good way to try someone out and bring them on and we would hope that eventually they would get a job in the vineyard in which they are learning. I mean, that's the idea; that they'll keep them as a full time member of staff.
What would you say is the hardest thing to grasp for students?
I think the most difficult thing in the actual vineyard work is the repetitive nature of some of the tasks that you need to do. You need quite a bit of stamina and determination really. For example when pruning vines, there's easily a month of doing it; it's usually winter; and it's cold and wet. That is quite a tricky one for some people to get used to.
What would you say, on the other hand, is the most enjoyable part?
I think the end of harvest for us. You all bring it in and it's a great feeling. Then it's the wine makers' problem! It's really nice to have an annual event like that which closes the year off.
How much does the weather affect what people can actually learn on the apprenticeship?
We can still cover everything but you have to make the best of what you've got. If it's nice and sunny and dry, you can go out and cultivate; if it's just stopped raining, you can go out and spray; and if it's raining, you're maintaining equipment or working in the winery. The syllabus stays the same; you just have to be flexible in when it's delivered.
Lastly, what advice do you have for people who are considering this apprenticeship?
I wouldn't do an apprenticeship without being certain this is what you want to do - it's two years and a lot of hard work - but if you want to get into viticulture then I think an apprenticeship is a very good route to take. By the end of two years you're up and running. Jacob is the first one in the UK and we want to encourage more people to do it.
So potentially one day we could have all these apprentices opening their own vineyards and really putting England on the wine map?