CATHARINE LOWE spent a week being a grape picker in beautiful Pernand Vergelesses, in Burgundy. Life was hard work but fun.
A grape picker starts early. In Pernand Vergelesses, where I had the great ‘pleasure’ of a week’s holiday picking, the day begins at 6.45am for a rapid breakfast of coffee and bread, before we head into the vineyards. Buckets and secateurs are handed out, rows are allocated and the work begins.
The regimentation is reminiscent, at times, of a 1920s American chain-gang, as we are packed into vans, bussed to vineyards, tipped out, and appointed a row each, bending obediently to work at the first cry of ‘allez’. At the finish of said line, another is appointed, ‘allez’ rings out and work continues. Once a parcel is picked, it’s back into the bus, and off to the next, and the next and the next.
Vines are trained low and grape bunches hang close to the ground – so excruciating backache is guaranteed. Vineyards are filled with the cry of ‘pannier’ as pickers call for their buckets to be emptied, while the odd cry of pain signifies a mis-cut with the secateurs: they are very sharp, glide through flesh effortlessly, and it hurts a lot. At 9am, a shout for casse-croûte signals the arrival of bread, cheese, paté, wine and water. As all are consumed with glee, the mood lightens and the fun starts. Grapes start to fly, and the sticky, sloppy slap as a bunch of rotting grapes reaches its target produces howls of delight from all around. As days wear on and – in the case of 2001 Burgundy – as the rain comes down, the grapes get wetter, so more rot. More pleasurable to throw, less so to receive. And pranks by no means stop with grapes.
At midday, the welcome cry of ‘à la soupe’ goes up, signalling it’s time for the bus back to the house for a glass of wine followed by lunch. ‘Soupe’ is a typical under- exaggeration for the French, as four-course meals are served at lunch and dinner. Wine is, of course, on hand throughout.
Picking begins again at 2pm and lasts until 6pm. It’s a long four hours. A sense of history, as you trudge up the steep, chalky soils of Corton-Charlemagne hill, helps lift the ennui. I found welcome relief – boredom and backache – by helping out in the winery, sorting grapes and pumping juice over the vats. At 6pm, work finishes and waterproofs, if worn, are hosed down, boots and secateurs laid to rest, and a drink laid on.
A good team of pickers is hard to find. Some producers, fed up with a lack of discipline among itinerant workers, are switching to machines. Yet, where the slopes are steep, machines are not an option, and it is up to the producer to ensure his team is happy.
This is a point that Remi Rollin – the delightful producer who I was working for – takes to heart. (It is no surprise that many of his pickers return year after year, choosing this gruelling work as their holiday.)
Evenings often start with blind tastings of old bottles brought up from Remi’s cellar, and later, games are laid on. As such evenings wear on, the laughter gets louder, and thoughts of the aching back, monotonous picking, dismal pay, massacred hands, tannin-stained fingers and grape juice-matted clothes fade. Not only will you not mind returning to the vineyard tomorrow, but probably next year, too.
Catharine Lowe is deputy editor of Decanter.