Columns
HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]:

Family Money

Personal Directions

The Doctor's Consultation by Dr. Iain Corness

Agony Column

Camera Class by Snapshot

Recipes from Rattana

Battling the Crab By Leslie Wright

A mother’s worst nightmare

Harvest season - Critical time for winemakers

Family Money: Fixed Interest Securities

By Leslie Wright,
Managing director of Westminster Portfolio Services (Thailand) Ltd.

Some investors are confused by the term ‘fixed interest security’, imagining this is something like a bank account except that it pays out a regular fixed rate of interest. Well, not quite.

Fixed interest securities are actually debt instruments. Issued for a short, medium or long period, and backed by a government, state, municipality, or corporation, the security of this type of investment depends on the strength and credibility of the backer (who is really the borrower) and that backer’s ability to repay the debt at maturity, and in the meantime, the fixed interest each time this becomes due.

When a government wants to build a new airport, for instance, they ‘float’ an issue of bonds, which effectively are promissory notes to the public, promising to repay the principal after a certain number of years, and to pay a fixed rate of interest in the meantime. This is where the ‘fixed’ element comes in. At regular intervals throughout the term of the bond, a dividend is paid, which is a fixed amount of money, but a fixed percentage only in relation to the original face value of the bond.

When the yield from bonds is better than from cash, people are willing to pay a premium to acquire them. When interest rates are high, bonds are eschewed in favour of cash. Bonds are therefore tradable commodities, and can be held directly or indirectly through a wide range of bond funds.

From the beginning of 2000 until June 30 2002, UK government bonds (which are often called “gilts” because the bond certificate has a gold (or gilt) edge to it produced a return of 15.1% and corporate bonds a return of 18.3%. This compares to a UK equity return of 25.7%. So it is unsurprising if you, along with many other investors, have been taking a close look at fixed income - an asset class generally thought to be safer than equities but providing a higher long-term return than cash.

The main advantage of investing in bonds is that they provide regular income and certainty of cash flow over the short, medium or long-term. If a bond is held to maturity, an investor can lock in a return and will not be exposed to cuts in interest rates, which could affect cash returns. Bonds also allow investors to diversify away from equity markets as the two asset classes respond differently to distinct stages of the business cycle. Also, by paying fixed amounts of interest, or ‘coupons’, bonds are a useful tool for those investors who have regular payments to make, such as school fees.

But there are risks involved. Should the bond not be held to maturity, the sensitive relationship between bond prices and interest rates may lead to a loss in real terms to the investor. As interest rates rise, bond prices fall. Credit and default risk - the risk of the bond issuer defaulting on its obligations to make the regular interest payments or repay the principal sum - applies more to corporate bonds, but is still an important consideration. And for those investing in foreign bonds, there is the risk of currency movements.

However, even with all these issues, over the long term the risk of bonds is still lower than equities. Of course, this also means that the potential for long-term returns is also lower. But in the current market, UK gilts are available at attractive yields of around 5%, and relatively safe corporate bonds offer yields as high as 6.5%.

Strong demand, reduced borrowing by governments and stable inflation have impacted yields available from government debt so that they are at lows not seen for over 30 years. In this environment, it is a natural step to consider investment in higher-yielding corporate, or non-government, issues.

When investing in corporate bonds, studying the credit risk becomes a vital factor. The most common reference when assessing this risk is to one of the ratings agencies, usually Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s. Triple A is the highest grade a bond can be given and C is the lowest (“junk”). The term “investment grade” refers to bonds issued with ratings of triple B or above, and those below this grade are referred to as “speculative”. If a bond has a rating of D then it has defaulted.

Although the default rate for investment grade bonds is extremely low, there is a huge gulf between investment grade and sub-investment grade debt in defaults. As a result, most investors limit their exposure to triple B and above. Currently, 10-year BBB debt offers yield premiums over government bonds of around 1.5% a year - an attractive option.

Following shocks to the markets such as the Enron and WorldCom revelations, the corporate bond market is nervous: even single A rated stocks are being treated with caution. But this means corporate bonds have cheapened significantly, so now could be a good time to start adding them to an investment portfolio.

Bear in mind that unlike equities, where profits as well as losses can be high, corporate bonds have an asymmetric risk/reward profile. This means they only produce small, incremental gains over time and it is not possible to make a fortune from investing in corporate bonds as could happen in the equity market.

As with equities, there are two ways of gaining exposure to the fixed income market: buying direct holdings; or via pooled vehicles. The average annual cost of investing in a bond fund will be between 0.5% and 1%; for a similar equity fund this would be between 1% and 1.5%. Direct investment in bonds is an option for large portfolios but requires a large number of holdings to diversify individual issuer risk, particularly for corporate bonds. Pooled funds generally offer the best solution.

So, is now the time to switch from equities to bonds? The exact mix of bonds within a portfolio depends on the requirements of the investor and economic conditions. Presently, bonds appear to be fair value in Europe and moderately expensive in the US. Should the equity markets stabilise and rally, then bonds are likely to be relatively poor performers. However, if equity markets continue to fall then the lack of confidence in equities may mean that bonds will perform very well.


Personal Directions: Winning your audience

By Christina Dodd,
founder and managing director of Incorp Trining Associates

I found myself this week working with a group of bright and young individuals who wanted to improve their presentation skills mainly in the areas of delivery techniques, voice and body language. Bubbling over with enthusiasm but with a severe case of nerves, they each presented a three minute impromptu speech on a light subject of their choice. While watching them for the very first time in order to critique their styles, it reminded me of the time when, as a young girl returning from two years schooling in Malaysia, I had to give my very first speech to a hall filled with three to four hundred students at my high school. I can remember being excited and at the same time extremely nervous but I somehow got through what seemed to be an eternity, and had the students - and teachers - rolling with laughter having related a rather funny episode about snakes hiding in toilet cisterns and maids taking off like lightning down the street!

Being in touch with the audience and being able to hold their interest and gain their support is the reward that all speakers long for. Preparation is crucial as is the material that you are going to present. But don’t think that this is all there is to it. You may have perfected the content and have your introduction, connectives and conclusions all in place; you may be good with visual aids and have no problems whatsoever with a Power Point presentation; you may have the best-looking handouts and giveaways in the business; but unless you can “win your audience” - then all your preparation and technical skills are lost and are only half as effective as they could have been!

Powerful and successful presentations or speeches basically come down to the person doing the presenting or speaking. An audience wants to connect with that person and they won’t connect if you stand there looking and behaving like a piece of stone! An audience wants information, that goes without saying, but it also wants to be entertained. It wants to be treated as something special and it wants to come away at the end of the program with a positive “feel good” attitude - wanting more from you.

So this requires that the presenter has a certain style and delivery technique that will grab the audience’s attention. It requires the presenter to constantly review body language and voice skills to ensure that every presentation wins the audience and that the audience is not having to follow waving arms around the room or to listen to (and consequently nod off to) a boring monotone voice.

Being up there in front of a small or large group of people can be a daunting experience for some. But with coaching and guidance, people can improve upon their skills and become effective speakers and what’s more - end up thoroughly enjoying it. Practice presentations or being “on stage” long enough and you will surprise yourself with the confidence you gain. It will drive you much further and bring onboard all your latent skills and talent.

When I was “growing up” in this industry I had a very tough taskmaster who taught me the fundamentals of gauging an audience, delivery techniques and so on. I thought I knew it all until I met this gentleman who made me start all over again, right from the beginning. I covered in great depth subjects like eye contact, posture, composure, self-control, body movement and body language, breathing and voice. Through studying these subjects it gave me great discipline which I believe is necessary for every speaker or presenter to have in order to present well.

For something as simple as standing in front of a group of people you really have to be aware of what your body is doing because your body language is automatically sending a message to the audience. Some of us have picked up habits in terms of the way we might rest a foot to the side or tend to lean against a table, both implying that the speaker is perhaps tired or not interested and therefore sending a negative message. I didn’t think too much about this until I actually had the opportunity to examine this on videotape and it really can be quite dramatic.

Different poses can create and set different moods. Just by slumping in a chair, instead of sitting with straight shoulders and good posture, tells something about you. The way you place your feet or fold your legs tells the audience something about you. What you do with your hands also sends a message to the audience. Frantic hand waving may be an expression of enthusiasm but it is distracting and shows nervousness and lack of self-control. I remember once having to sit through a seminar where most people in the audience were talking about the hand signals of the instructor and what would appear next instead of the subject of the seminar! The topic at break time was centered around the antics of the speaker and it became quite comical.

Constantly moving around on the stage or rocking left to right for example can set an uneasy feeling with the audience. You may feel at ease but they certainly don’t. They become annoyed and lose focus and concentration. Then you begin to lose them and this is what you don’t want to happen. To keep your audience with you requires absolute control and knowledge of what your body is doing and therefore saying to the audience. As I said last week in “Presentation is Everything”, videotaping is the best way to improving these skills.

The whole tone of a presentation or seminar can be set purely by the way the speaker or presenter enters the room and takes the stage or podium. From the second that happens all eyes and thoughts are directed towards the speaker. The atmosphere becomes charged either negatively or positively as a result of the body language and body movement displayed.

And then there comes the matter of “voice”. Making a dramatic and powerful entrance and having a positive physical presence will fall completely flat if when you begin to speak you have no strength and clarity in your voice and people can’t hear you. The first thing they will do is look at each other with enquiring expressions and if the contrast between what they see and what they hear is so great, they will then begin to lose interest (and most likely begin to laugh). And then you have lost them!

Some speakers need to improve the way they use their voice. Many times there is no consideration given to the importance of breathing and control. Exercises can be done very simply as a matter of routine and they are absolutely vital if you want to maintain healthy voice control. Many times I work without a microphone if the facilities allow it, basically because over the years I have developed the ability to speak without one and at times I find microphones more annoying than helpful. Microphones are of course essential, but every good speaker or presenter should also practice without one to develop their projection skills.

For many years I have always “sung the scales” and done my breathing exercises before attempting any kind of training, be it a half-day program or a three-day seminar. For me it’s a discipline that I follow strictly because I know that it will mean the difference between just performing or performing at my best. And isn’t the best what every audience deserves?

If you are required to speak either for your company, organization or socially on different occasions and need to improve certain skill areas as covered in this article, we are able to provide coaching dependant on your needs. Today’s article has covered the “bare bones” of presentation and speaking. In future articles I will discuss other such areas as humour, use of props, setting the theme and mood and audience interaction.

Should you like to inquire about Incorp’s Presentation Skills and Public Speaking Programs, please email me at chris [email protected] or contact me directly at Incorp Training Associates in Bangkok. Tel. (0) 2652 1867-8, fax: (0) 26521870. Program details can be found at www.incorptrain ing.com


The Doctor's Consultation by Dr. Iain Corness: Implanon - is it for you?

Well, if you are male, then it certainly is not, because Implanon is a hormonal implant contraceptive for women. Ever since we discovered the Oral Contraceptive Pill (OCP) and the sexual revolution took place, medical science has been looking at the ‘best’ form of contraception.

The Combined Oral Contraceptive (COC) pills have been dramatically altered sine they first came on the market in the 1960’s. The dosages in the hormones used have been whittled down to a fraction of what they were initially. Also the chemical hormones have changed with newer and safer versions being the norm these days.

After the COC’s came the side effect problems, most notable being thrombo-embolic problems - blood clots, especially with cigarette smokers, something that the sexual revolution women grabbed as another social attitudinal ‘forward’ step. This provided a stimulus for women to look for alternative, non-hormonal methods and this spawned the Intra Uterine Devices (IUD’s) and these were going to be the be all and end all of the contraceptive methods. Unfortunately it was not and one particular type (the Dalkon shield) brought the whole IUD movement grinding to a virtual halt.

So it was back to hormones to be used for control and the use of injectable types which gave a long term approach to the contraceptive problem. These appeared to work well, gave you a dimply bottom and a 40% chance of significant weight gain and an 11% chance of nausea, which lasted for the lifetime of the injection - three months!

Now there is Implanon, an implant that goes under the skin and slowly releases ‘etonogestrel’ the latest of the low dose hormones, for the next three years. Yes, three years!

The way that Implanon works is a slow release mechanism in a flexible matrix rod, 40 mm long and only 2 mm in diameter. The release is reasonably constant over the 36 months and appears to be relatively unchanged by other medications, especially antibiotics, always a problem with OCP’s.

The query that many women had was whether the normal hormonal levels would return after using the Implanon implant. Studies now show that normal levels return after only a few days after removal of the implant.

Other queries were as to whether there would be increased menstrual loss with the implant, but studies would show that 82% of women experienced normal or reduced bleeding. Another important factor for many women is the weight gain and with Implanon there appeared to be only a 2.6% increase, which was about the same as women using a non-hormonal method over a three year interval. Other body systems that were apparently unchanged by Implanon included Blood Pressure, bone density, pimples or cholesterol. It also did not change the quality or amount of breast milk in lactating women.

As a method of contraception it has most of the advantages of the other methods with few of the disadvantages and does appear to be a step forward. Not having to remember to take a pill each day would have to be a good start! Failure rate (pregnancy!) appears to be less than that seen after tying the tubes or male vasectomy.

It is not cheap, running out at about 6,000 baht, but for over three years looks like good value!


Agony Column

Dear Hillary,

At long last I have managed to find a very nice young lady here and when I have finished the contract I am on I will be coming back to Thailand to live. I have set my girl up in a nice apartment, but the only thing I forgot to look at carefully is how to send money to her over there. I hear all kinds of stories about guys sending money by mail, but the envelope either doesn’t make the trip, or it arrives empty. I have already found this out when I tried to send some cash the other month. My girl does not have a credit card, but does have a bank account with a Thai bank. Is there any problem with sending American dollars over to a Thai bank account? I know this is a bit different from the usual questions you get Hillary, but I feel I can trust you.

American in the Sandbox

Dear American in the Sandbox,

Hillary is so pleased you have found the girl of your dreams, even if you are now having nightmares about how to keep her piggy bank filled. Banking in Thailand is no different from banking anywhere else. You arrange transfer and the banks do it between themselves. This does take time, so it is not an “instant” transfer. Next time you are in Thailand, get a credit card for your girl and she can then withdraw directly. Mind you, it will be necessary for you to keep funds in the account she will draw from. Being a ‘canny’ sort, Hillary suggests that this special account be watched carefully - you don’t want to see it cleaned out in the first week! There is another way, and that is by sending Hillary all your money and I will dispense it carefully on your behalf. (There will be a small handling fee, but you would not want Hillary to take on this onerous task gratis, now would you?) However, if you need to have a secure way to send money quickly, then Hillary suggests you look at Western Union, and there is a local branch.

Dear Hillary,

My husband and I have decided to retire in Thailand and we are looking around at where we shall settle at present. We expect to be back after Christmas and we then want to purchase a house (or a large apartment). We have been told that we have to have a work permit before we can own a house, but like I said, we are planning on retiring, not working. Can you advise us, Hillary? We are certainly at sea over this.

Done Workin’

Dear Done Workin’,

Oh how I wish I was done working too! While Thailand is a great place to retire in, there are certain differences in buying real estate here, than there is in your own country. For example, you can own a condominium in your own name here, but not a house. The correct people to advise you are reputable real estate agents and trustworthy lawyers (an oxymoron perhaps). These can be difficult to find, but begin by asking around the various ex-pat clubs and organizations, and you will find there will be recommendations you can follow up. Looking for lawyers and agents who are well established is a good start. Never forget, however, the phrase “Caveat Emptor” (let the buyer beware). It is just as important here as it is in your own country. If not more so.

Dear Hillary,

A 50 year old friend of mine has arrived here from America for a six month stay and I think he has gone troppo already. He has set up house with a girl that he met in a bar one week ago and is paying her 25,000 baht to stay with him in an expensive house. He cannot speak Thai and she cannot speak English, so heaven knows how they communicate. It is a stupid situation. He takes her everywhere with him and everywhere they go he is looking after her every whim but she does not seem to be doing anything for him. My friend is an outgoing guy and this girl just sits there and does nothing. She certainly says nothing to me and does not even talk to him. Should I tell him that he is crazy or should I say nothing and let her fleece him of his money?

A Friend

Dear Friend,

Whilst Hillary can see that you are confused on what to do in this situation, there is really no need to be, Petal. Is your 50 year old friend asking for your guidance? If not, remember that unsolicited advice is rarely appreciated. For him to continue to have this girl as a companion means that they are communicating in some way or other, even if it is in Braille. Since he seems happy, you should be happy for him too. I am sure that he knows this is a six months vacation, so this is a ‘mia chow’ (rented wife) relationship of which both parties know the outcome. If you really want to help your friend, just be there for him at the end, if needed. Neither you nor I can change the course of other people’s destiny, nor should we even attempt to.


Camera Class: Take the camera traveling

by Snapshot

Most people do remember to throw the camera in the bag when traveling overseas, but do you remember to take it into town? Remember that you are living in a city that tourists save for 11 months just to be able to get here. They find subjects to photograph here and so should you. This week, let’s look at a few specific examples of “how to” when you are looking to record those “once in a lifetime” images.

Every city, town or village anywhere has its parades. And there are plenty of them here. Now, have you ever tried to record the parade? It is actually very difficult. The naked eye sees a long procession of musicians, marchers and the like as they pass by, but the camera sees only one slice of the action about 1/60th of a second long!

There is only one secret word for parades, and that’s Height. You have to get a high viewpoint to successfully record the action, and preferably use a long lens. By shooting down the oncoming procession you will get several squads of musicians, marchers etc all on the one frame of film. By using the telephoto lens you “compress” the action and get more in the one photographic frame. Honestly, if you can’t get up high don’t take parades. You will be disappointed with all ground level shots.

All tourist towns have their nightlife, and we have the odd nocturnal events and places. Lots of lights, neon signs and flood-lit fountains are the norm for this type of photograph. The secret here is a Wide angle lens with an aperture down around f 1.8 and some “fast” film. This is the time to get some 800 ASA film, or 400 ASA at least. The other secret is not to use your flash. Now I fully realize that this is photography after dark, but the whole concept is to let the attractions provide the illumination, rather than blasting it with your flash burst. If you try and take neon light using flash you will totally wash out the neon and again get very disappointing results.

One of the more challenging travel situations is the summer beach holiday. It is very difficult to photograph the beach and not end up with a washed out look in the final photographs. The secret here is a Polarizing filter and the time of day you shoot. This is where the Polarizer works so well, especially with the glare from the sand. The Polarizer will also give you a blue sky to contrast the yellow sand. The time of day is also just as important. Shoot early morning or late afternoon when the sun’s rays are skimming across the beach and the tracks and ridges in the sand will show up as shadows.

Some of you will be exponents of the wilderness type holiday, trekking and camping and taking in the vast grandeur of breathtaking natural wonders. The secret here is a wide angle lens, look for low viewpoints and use slow film, plus a tripod if you can. The idea here is to use the lens at around f16 or f22 to maximize the depth of field. This in turn and the slow film, will require longer exposures - hence the tripod. Shooting in this way will give you maximum detail in the shot, maximum content and visual theatre. Finally, shoot early morning or late afternoon as well to get the dramatic shadow effects and really give the impact to the Grand Canyon!

So you can see, whilst you can get holiday “snaps” with the trusty point and shooter, to really get the really great holiday photographs you will need a choice of lenses, a choice of film and a tripod. You can still get good shots with the cheaper compact cameras, but great shots need great cameras. Like all things in life, you get what you pay for.


Recipes from Rattana: Spicy Shrimp and Scallop Soup

Winter is coming up, and even though Thailand does not get too cold (other than in the mountains around Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai) this is a lovely soup to serve as a starter for any meal. It is an interesting and very easy to prepare soup. It is not a quick soup, however, as it is necessary to let the soup stand to take on the subtle flavours. If you do not have a can of chicken soup, you can substitute 400 mls of chicken stock. If you wish, you can add other seafood items such as calamari to the broth.

Ingredients serves 2-4

Scallops (fresh shelled) 1 cup

Shrimps, small shelled

and de-veined 1 cup

Butter 1tbspn

Chicken soup 1 can

Carrot sliced 1

Celery sliced 1 stalk

Onion sliced 1/2

Bay leaf 1

Ginger finely chopped 1 tbspn

Lime juice from 1 lime

Cooking Method

Place scallops and butter in a saucepan and gently saut้ for 2 minutes. Remove scallops and set aside.

Place all remaining ingredients, other than shrimps, in the pan and simmer covered for 10 minutes. Allow to stand for 1 hour, then remove the bay leaf, add the scallops and shrimps and bring up to heat and then serve immediately.


Battling the Crab By Leslie Wright: Part 4 of a 6-part series about fighting cancer

Tests & treatment

On my first morning after admission into Bumrungrad Hospital, the doctors wanted first to determine how extensive was the cancer, and whether it had already spread - metastasised - elsewhere. This involved a series of diagnostic tests: CAT-scan to check the other organs, and MRI full-body bone-scan to determine whether it had spread into my bones.

The CAT-scan procedure I have already described, and the MRI machine looks very similar, if marginally narrower. But it’s not the same. You don’t need contrast dye to be injected, but you do have to hold still for a much longer period while they produce the pictures, which are amazingly clear and detailed. And during that time the machine is making a noise like a jackhammer next to your ear. They give you earplugs, but the noise is very loud and very pervasive. In fact, the noise is the worst part of the procedure, other than having to hold absolutely still for periods of up to 6 minutes at a time. The whole procedure took about two hours.

The results were good and bad. The good news was that we had caught the cancer relatively early: it had not yet spread to other organs - liver, spleen, stomach, heart, brain; but the bad news was that it appeared to have metastasised to two of my vertebrae, although not to other bones.

So the recommended course of treatment involved 24 doses of radiation therapy on the principal tumour from the front, the side and - to include one of the affected vertebrae - the back. Then later, a further course of 12 doses of radiation on the other affected vertebra.

Radiation treatment is similar to having an X-ray, except it takes a bit longer. You lay on a moveable table, and the machine rotates around you. You have to lay still, of course, and the technicians ensure you’re lined up properly. While the radiation is being delivered there’s a buzzing sound, but you don’t feel anything.

They will have tailor-made one or several metal ‘masks’ specifically for you, which are put in front of the radiation source to protect parts of your body and internal organs that are not to be irradiated. So you actually get a focussed, shaped beam of radiation exactly where it’s needed, and nowhere else. All very modern and hi-tech.

Then I was sent back upstairs to receive my first doses of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is simply a cocktail of chemicals that are administered intravenously. These chemicals are in and of themselves toxic - i.e., they’re poisonous. But they are more toxic to cancer cells than to normal cells.

Regrettably, while killing the cancer cells, these toxic chemicals have unpleasant side effects on the rest of the body. Some people tolerate the chemotherapy better than others, and there have been significant improvements in recent years in reducing these unpleasant side-effects. But I was fully expecting to go through the whole gamut of nausea, vomiting, constipation or diarrhoea, hair loss, fatigue, headaches, and a general feeling of malaise. Not a pleasant prospect, but better than dying.


A mother’s worst nightmare Part 4

By Lesley Warner

For the last two parts of my story about Emma I returned to England. I found it very stressful not being with her and my memories were only of seeing her helpless in ICU. Although I had regularly spoken to her on the phone I needed to see her for myself; fortunately for me I had a very understanding boss.

I wanted to be with Emma when she had the reconstruction surgery on her face and hand because I knew how nervous she was. This time I went to Massic Travel and booked a ticket with EVA air; it was much cheaper and the service on the flight was great.

I knew that Emma was only home for one day before going to Exeter Hospital for the first of her possible 6 operations, this one was for her hand and eye.

I arrived at the house and walked into the room with some trepidation but I was pleasantly surprised to see her sitting up and quite chirpy. She won’t take off her baseball cap, as she hates her loss of hair. This is being sorted out with hair extensions this week so she’s looking forward to that.

As I studied her wounds I could see several changes, the bones in her shoulder had moved around considerably, the shoulder blade had turned and now protruded from her back and the collarbone was sticking up causing a large lump on her shoulder. The index finger on her right hand has shrunk to half the length due to the shrinking of the tendon and loss of bone, the end of her thumb was black and they told her it would just drop off! (She was horrified). Her eye was pulled down from the bottom lid and like a patchwork quilt on the upper lid, caused by the hasty patching up in ER, but she was smiling and walking around.

I asked her about her ear, which looked worse than before, and she said that while in ICU in the later days she tried to get out of bed one night not realising that her legs would not support her and hit her head on a cabinet splitting her ear more. One could ask where the nursing staff was at this time...

Her main conversation appears to be her frustration with her lack of memory. She wants to know what happened. She said she couldn’t remember anything about the day of the accident. Obviously she didn’t want to remember the pain but she felt she needed to know what caused the accident and what happened to her. I asked why, and she answered, “Because I have been told where my injuries come from but I don’t know for myself. I could be told any story and I wouldn’t know if it’s true or not. It’s a horrible feeling.” She doesn’t complain and still feels that she is lucky to be alive, it could have been worse; the psychologist thinks she’s an extremely sane and sensible young lady (must take after her mum). Although I know in some quiet moments while alone she feels sad and cries, and says that she would like her life back.

I asked her what her first memory was. She said, “I don’t have any in ICU, so that’s 3 weeks of my life gone. It’s so weird, I’ve lost that time, it’s such an unreal feeling. I suppose my first real memory is when I was moved into a normal ward.”

(Continued next week)


Harvest season - Critical time for winemakers

By Ranjith Chandrasiri

Winemaking begins in the vineyard, with proper care and attention to the vines during the growing season. Winemakers like to say that the best wines are made in the vineyards, which is one of the reasons the harvest is so critical to the ultimate quality of a wine.

The image of men and women picking grapes and carrying them in baskets on their backs has barely changed for centuries. Ranjith Chandrasiri participates in the traditional “Harvest celebration” at the famous Mouton vineyard in Paulliac.

Rain, at least at this time of year, is a four-letter word for winemakers. Once harvest begins, they don’t even like to look up. (They can be superstitious that way.)

Throughout most of Europe, winemakers look for a little helping hand from ‘above’ for a new vintage to be successful. Traditionally, harvest blessings are held at the beginning of the harvest - a symbolic bunch of grapes is blessed before the harvest and a thanksgiving service is held at the conclusion. Benedictions such as below are read at the harvest blessing ceremonies.

“God watereth the hills from above: the earth is filled with the fruit of thy works. He bringeth forth grass for the cattle, and green herb for the service of man: that he may bring food out of the earth; and wine that maketh glad the heart of man.”

At the famous Chโteau Mouton Rothschild in Paulliac, Bordeaux, France, commencement of the 2002 harvest season was marked by the “Vendanges 2002” - a 3-day “Harvest Celebration” attended by friends of Mouton and few invited guests. On a glorious morning in early October, the invitees including my wife Chitra and I gathered at the Mouton headquarters in Paulliac to participate in the 2002 harvest celebration. The day started with us actually picking the grapes at the well-tended Mouton vineyards. It was a unique experience that I will not easily forget.

After a hearty lunch at Refectoire des Vendanges with the rest of the pickers, harvesting continued until late afternoon. The day’s events concluded with a fabulous gala dinner at the chโteau where Mr Xavier de Eizaguirre, the managing director of Chโteau Mouton announced that we had harvested enough grapes to make 5000 bottles of Chโteau Mouton. Not bad for a hard day’s work.

Of all activities associated with wine making, none is more wrapped in romantic imagery than grape picking. A pretty picker (doesn’t she look familiar?) seen at work during Mouton “Vendanges 2002”.

More serious though not necessarily sober events scheduled for the next two days included wine tastings and visit to the wine museum, the Centre Vinicole - the Mouton winery and the wine laboratory.

With first hand experience in picking the grapes (and few bruised fingers and a sore-back), I can fully appreciate what it takes to make a bottle of wine. To begin with, there’s a lot more to picking the grapes than simply getting them off the vine. Whole bunches of grapes are cut off the vine individually with hooked-tip knives and gently placed into a container that can hold 10 to 20 kilos of fruit.

The picker looks for the ripest bunches, leaving any that need more time to mature and eliminating those that are flawed. An experienced picker can harvest up to 2 tons of fruit a day if the crop is heavy and the fruit is at a convenient height. Vines at the Mouton vineyards were traditionally close to the ground, making the task of picking wearisome on the back.

Timing the harvest is critical because the quality of the fruit determines the desired style of the wine. Harvesting has to be done just at the right time when the grapes are ripe - The structural elements of the wine - sugar, acid and tannin - are in balance. This means that the tannins are no longer green or rough, the sugars have climbed, and the acidity has not fallen. Pick your grapes before the sugars have climbed, and the wine will end up lean and overly acidic. Wait too long, and the acids will have plummeted, and you’ll end up with a flabby wine without the structure to balance the fruit.

Though it’s not very romantic, some science goes into analyzing the grapes and determining when the time is right to pick. While part of this work can be done in the vineyard, large wineries employ men and women in white coats working in the laboratories to determine when to give pickers the green light.

Bad things sometimes happen to good grapes and the occasionally nasty whims of Mother Nature can certainly affect how a wine tastes.

Too wet

If there’s one thing that winemakers hate at harvest, it’s a cloudy sky. Too much rain in the spring can be a problem as well. A hard rain while the vines are flowering will knock the blooms off the plant and reduce the size of the crop. And damp conditions during the growing season may lead to mildew and other diseases. A wet growing season or harvest can affect the taste of a wine in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. Overcast means lack of sunlight, which causes grapes to struggle to ripen. Also, grapes actually bloat (and sometimes burst) with water during rainy weather, and without an additional dose of sun and heat, the resulting wines might taste thin and diluted.

Too cold

Temperature has everything to do with how grapes mature, and therefore how a wine tastes. Even warm climates can have unusually cool growing seasons, but whatever the climate, if it’s too cold for too long, grapes suffer. As the grapes ripen, they lose acidity, and the juice from the grapes goes from tart to sweet. Of course, wines needs acid to make them taste vibrant, but if temperatures are too cool for too long, the grapes won’t fully ripen, and the resulting wines will taste aggressively tart or even sour.

Unripe grapes also produce wines with undesirable “green” qualities. Cabernet Sauvignon might smell like bell peppers or Sauvignon Blanc might taste like asparagus.

Too hot

Sure, it takes heat to ripen grapes, but sometimes it gets too hot for grapes to handle. If the growing season is extremely warm, all sorts of problems can occur. The grapes can dry out and become overripe.

Since fermentation involves the conversion of sugar to alcohol, grapes that are overly ripe and high in sugar become wines that have an alcoholic burn and often taste unbalanced and one-dimensionally sweet.

Too much of a good thing

Even a perfect growing season has its pitfalls, such as overproduction. If the weather is favorable and the crop gets too big, the quality of the wine may suffer. So when a crop is too large, growers may trim off extra grape bunches, doing what’s called a “green harvest,” before the grapes ripen.

And the rest ...

Frost is a concern in many regions, particularly if it hits when the vines are budding with new young shoots or later on when the vines are flowering. Frost damage won’t affect the taste of a wine, but it may cut the size of the crop and translate into fewer wines on the shelf for consumers. Growers often go to great lengths to protect the vines from frost damage. Sometimes growers light smudge pots in hopes of blanketing the field with protective smoke and turn on giant fans in the field to keep the frost from settling on the vines. Ironically, if the field is irrigated, one of the best ways to protect a vineyard is to coat it with water, insulating it from damage.

Flooding typically occurs in the winter, when vines are dormant, so they suffer little or no damage. But, as happened this summer, floods occasionally strike in Europe during the growing season, swamping cities and fields. Austria’s wine regions are still drying out and trying to assess the damage. Floods during the growing season leave waterlogged grapes that can burst and spread mildew and other diseases, potentially ruining a crop.

Hail devastated many vineyards in Northern Italy this year, particularly in Valpolicella, Soave and Bardolino. At its worst, hail shreds the leaf canopy (if the leaf loss is severe, the vines can no longer grow properly) and batters and breaks the grapes, damaging and reducing the size of the crop. Hailstorms are often localized, wreaking havoc in one vineyard, while leaving neighboring sites untouched.

While there’s no reason for consumers to have sleepless nights over thunderstorms and heat waves, I hope you can understand the pitfalls and heartaches that sometimes come with harvest for the winemakers and what all that mean to us, as wine drinkers.

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