Rich Pickings

  • Friday 9 December 2005

The life of a grape picker isn’t all chafed hands and back aches,
you know. Rosi Hanson discovers that, thanks to free trips to the beach and wild parties dressed as cowboys and Indians, they're having as much fun making the wine as we are drinking it

Early-morning mists, heavy dew, stacks of dry vine shoots ready for burning, narrow country roads busy with tractors carrying grapes to the vat houses – autumn in Pomerol has a romantic feel.

‘The wine harvest – it’s part of the continuum of life! You feel part of something that is age-old,’ says British artist Penny Govett, who has joined the picking team at Château Pétrus for the last four years. Most of the pickers have been returning for years, some as many as 20, with younger generations of the same families joining them. The core group are from Lille and Dunkerque in the north of France. They use their annual leave from jobs on the railways to take part in this festive work. Engine drivers mingle with locals, students and the occasional exotic foreigner like Penny.

‘It’s like one huge family,’ she smiles. ‘We fall upon each other with hugs and kisses, like brothers and sisters, when we meet again for the next vintage.’

There is a list of people waiting to join this 200-strong team, 65 of whom are lodged in dormitories at the property. With so many old hands, the pickers here perform like a well-oiled machine, normally finishing in 12 days. There are 80 hectares of vines to harvest, including chateaux Pétrus, Trotanoy, Hosanna, La Fleur-Pétrus, Latour à Pomerol and, in

Saint-Emilion, Chateau Magdelaine.

It is an anxious time for director Christian Moueix, his winemaker, Jean-Claude Berrouet, and chef de culture Michel Gillet, who work together, assessing the state of the ripening grapes and the weather reports before deciding where to deploy the pickers each day.

Needless to say, the operation has to be run efficiently. The pickers have their own chef d’equipe, who travels to Bordeaux each year from Lyon to keep a close eye on proceedings at shop-floor level, and Michel Gillet’s assistants help him to supervise in the vines. Then there are the 60 young stagiaires who are taken on in June to do the vendanges vertes (cutting of unripe bunches to reduce the yield) and other preparatory work throughout the summer.

‘We are fastidious about the work in the vineyards,’ says Michel Gillet, who spends more time with his vines at this time than with his wife and children. This has never been more evident than in 1998, when they were famously able to harvest the whole crop in four days before predicted bad weather arrived.

Rooted in tradition as the harvest is, innovations are being made every year to improve quality. The trugs previously used by the pickers have been largely replaced by new crates that ensure the grapes are never squashed – the aim, of course, is to get them to the cuverie in peak condition. Prior to arriving there, they spend five minutes being inspected on a tapis de trie. A perforated, moving table, the tapis de trie shakes the bunches as they pass in front of the workers, who pick out slugs, unripe or rotten grapes, leaves and twigs.

‘Your eyes go completely after a few hours of this,’ says one of the team. The system has been gradually introduced over the last four years – 75% of the crop from the J-P Moueix properties was sorted in this way in 2004.

Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach. The Moueix family has taken this to heart. The food for its army of harvesters is copious and delicious. A kitchen has been created in the old stables adjoining the stunning modern refectory, designed by Herzog and De Meuron of Tate Modern fame, across the road from Château Pétrus.

Lunch, cooked by local women who normally work in the vineyards, always starts with a thick vegetable soup. Then comes a salad or perhaps a slice of

pâté. The main course comes from the traditional repertoire of French country food – daubes of beef, coq au vin, navarin of lamb, rabbit, pot-au-feu, meaty sausages and lentils with mustard. Cheese and dessert or fruit round it

all off. Later, as darkness falls, the irresistible smell of meat grilled over vine shoots wafts on the cool evening air, reviving weary pickers, who are soon in a party mood.

It is Cherise Moueix, wife of Christian, who is responsible for the programme of entertainment. She relishes the job: ‘There is something every night – discos, Scrabble, bingo with bottles for prizes, Basque songs and stories… and every year we have a fancy-dress night. I send out a letter to the pickers in June, announcing the theme. We’ve had a Chinese theme, Cowboys and Indians, Tropical Islands, Spanish, 1,001 Arabian Nights, Fiesta Mexicana… The food, drink and decorations follow the theme. This year, it’s the Pirates’ Ball – I’ve laid on a consignment of black eye patches and bandannas, but the pickers are very motivated and come with costumes.

‘There are lots of characters among

our regulars. Our “muse” is Jean-Marie Guison. He has been coming to pick for 15 years. He recites poetry and the fables of De La Fontaine, and also has

a selection of naughty (but not too naughty!) jokes. He calls Christian and

me “Papa” and “Maman”, and Edouard (Moueix) “Frere”. Every harvest team should have someone like him.’

There is undoubtedly a special spirit. The way the vendangeurs are treated inspires loyalty. Hard work is expected, but every picker is made welcome. All get a tasting and a tour of the recently rebuilt Château Pétrus, and everyone who works the whole harvest without a break gets a bonus.

No work is done on Sundays, when an outing is arranged. Last year, there was a visit to Château Margaux. The pickers went by ferry to Blaye, where the cooks were waiting with a picnic lunch. One year, with the harvesters already assembled, Christian decided the grapes were not ready and sent everyone to Arcachon for a paid day at the beach.

There is a real sense of satisfaction among the pickers when the last grapes of the harvest are loaded onto a tractor decorated with flowers. They gather round as a rocket is fired to mark the end of the season’s work in the vines, then disperse to get ready for the final, and biggest, party, the gerbebaude. With the food, the fun and the friendships made every year, it is not surprising this harvest team is oversubscribed.

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