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Jefford on Monday: Don’t Forget the Toilet Brush

The ‘harvest 2010’ edition of Les Vins d’Alsace talks of the regulations surrounding vintage...let me offer you a few insights into just how far the tentacles of the French bureaucratic octopus reach.

Picking in Bordeaux Harvest

Much of July has been cool and wet in France, but not enough to stop a greyhound vintage dead in its tracks. Many winegrowers, especially in the northern regions of Champagne, the Loire valley and Alsace, are expecting an August harvest this year.

It’s preparation time, therefore, in the vineyards. I happened to be in Alsace last year shortly after vintage, and picked up a copy of the ‘harvest 2010’ edition of Les Vins d’Alsace, published by the Alsace Winegrowers’ Association. It’s packed with useful tips for growers about how to cope … not so much with the vintage itself (that’s in the genes of most) but, more challengingly, how to cope with the regulations surrounding vintage. Let me offer you a few insights into just how far the tentacles of the French bureaucratic octopus reach.

Toilet brushes? Yes: according to legislation dating back to July 1996, if you are lodging grape-pickers, there must be a toilet for every six pickers, and that toilet must be supplied not merely with paper but with a brush, too (“… pourvus d’une brosse adaptée au maintien de leur propreté”). The national harvest-accommodation toilet-brush inspector is probably rattling around the regions as I write, leaving no toilet door unopened. You can’t lodge more than six people to a room, there must be no mixed sleeping arrangements – and bunks are forbidden.

All non-EU pickers must have work permits (that includes Romanians and Bulgarians), and you have to fill in a form in advance if you want to hire pickers: no rocking up on the off-chance. Family members can pick grapes without being paid, but only “to the second degree of relationship”. A table is provided, illustrating every conceivable degree of relationship. A neice, for example, is the third degree of relationship: you must pay her. Ditto for your tottering great-grandparents, come to gather a sentimental basket or two; while your helpful first cousins occupy the payable fourth degree. The table stops at the ninth degree: the great-great-great grandchildren of your great-uncle or aunt.

The hourly salary levels are all laid out in advance according to 12 different levels of attainment (there are, for example, workers, specialised workers, qualified workers and highly qualified workers); there are five different categories of tractor-driving licence specified, depending on the machine in question.

The sample salary slip shows that the employer has to add 10 per cent for ‘paid holidays’ (even for an occasional work stint of five days – which in France still means 35 hours), while the workers see their hard-earned weekly salary of 350 euros or so axed by 15 per cent at source for eight assorted social deductions whose final purpose is disguised in six incomprehensible acronyms, plus unemployment benefit and elderly sickness benefit.

There are more forms to fill out depending on what you intend doing with your grapes, and you have to confirm the fact that you are harvesting by phone or fax on the day before you pick, or the morning itself. There’s another form if you intend to chaptalize – though the extent to which you are allowed to do that depends on grape variety, appellation, yield and natural sugar level, and there are more rules about how you do it and what you are allowed to use. You have to keep a pressing notebook (in indelible ink, without any extra jottings or crossings-out – “à l’encre indélébile, sans surcharge, ni rature”), which has to be sent off to the authorities later. I could go on …

Anyone who lives in France will be familiar with the fact that the nation’s manic administrators have laid snares for every step in life, and there’s no doubt that any wine-grower has to be at least as skilled at form-filling as he or she is at grape growing or vinifying. It’s not necessarily different elsewhere, though – I remember talking to James Brown, a cattle farmer on the whisky island of Islay, a few years ago. “The only way to farm now,” he said, “is with paperwork. If the paperwork’s not right, it doesn’t matter how good your animals are; it’ll just cost you money to get them burnt.”

I was heartened, though, to see the editorial written by the Winegrowers’ Association president, Gérard Boesch. He neither moaned nor nannied. The key to successful harvesting, he wrote, “was picking at perfect maturity: not too soon, and not too late. Wine should be the fruit of ripe grapes without additions,” he said pointedly. His words were no doubt aimed, in Alsace, at reckless chaptalizers, but their significance is universal. It is to France’s credit that so many winegrowers (though not, of course, all) still retain that ideal. May the August sun help them on their way.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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