It may be exhausting and underpaid, but working the wine harvest can also be great fun. KATHLEEN BUCKLEY explains how to find casual work among the vines
Wine Harvests: Picture yourself condemned to a chain gang, hunched over in the early morning mist, ankles deep in mud, and muscles screaming for mercy. A bell clangs, a tractor roars into view, and corks pop. Around you, 64 aching bodies lay down their tools and converge around the tractor… and are handed a glass of chilled rosé and a Camembert sandwich.
This, according to author Bob Blumer, is the constant cycle of agony and ecstasy that defines the life of a grape picker during wine harvests. Provided you have the mental strength to call in every contact you have ever made in the wine industry and the physical stamina to survive two weeks of backbreaking work, you could be standing – or more accurately stooping – in a vineyard this September. It will make for great future dinner party conversations, but picking grapes in a wine harvest is no easy job. A full pannier weighs 50kg or more and in some countries (notably Australia) casual grape pickers are often paid by the bucket. In France and the US, payment is usually by the hour, but even then, an estimated net per day wage in France is a mere £22. Accommodation varies greatly: from a château’s annexes to a communal attic in a farm shed, a shared caravan or a tent. And around the world, if it rains and you don’t pick, you don’t get paid.
Still interested? Plenty are. And not just those who have studied oenology and who understand the science of making a good wine, but people who are in love with wine. For them, the passion outweighs the pain.
So let’s talk about that pain. In the vines, it’s a matter of squatting, cutting with a very sharp knife, putting grapes into a basket then squatting and cutting some more. If you are assigned to a sorting table – and many wineries now have them in the fields – the work is easier on the back, but attention to detail is everything. If the sorting table is in the winery, it’s a wet job. This is where wellies come in handy, and an easily washable jacket. In any case, the red juice stains will be with you for weeks. As will a unique understanding of viticulture.
The work hours for wine harvests are long but, with any luck, sunny. Protective gear will include a hat, a jacket, gloves, sun block, bug block, muscle inflammatory ointment, a water bottle and a very portable, and durable, Walkman. But don’t worry about language tapes – you’ll find that exhaustion and euphoria are easy emotions to understand.
For those in the UK, getting work within the EU isn’t difficult. That’s if you can find a job. Jim Malone, a student at Plumpton College in East Sussex, is pursuing a wine studies diploma. Last year he was desperate to work a wine harvest, but despite sending ‘about a million CVs’ to wineries in France, he found that, ‘the New World was far more open to taking me on than the Old’.
Kiernan Sleep, a 22-year-old London-based graduate with no wine training, had a similar experience: ‘I’ve written to farmers, vineyard owners and wineries in the hope of finding work in continental Europe, but ran into problems,’ he says. Sleep blames the economic downturn and a large influx of Eastern European and Baltic migrants. ‘Everyone is fighting for scraps and with the expansion of the EU the prospects for work in the wine industry look bleak.’
If you see yourself spending next winter in sunny Australia or the beautiful Napa Valley, the going is even tougher. US visa work rules are supremely difficult to get round, as there is no such thing as a ‘backpacker’s’ visa for casual work. Australia is a bit more flexible but images of just turning up at a vineyard, cap in hand, are wide of the mark, even if much of the available work is only for grape picking.
One way into a French vineyard is through a programme called Appellation Controllée. The Netherlands company offers two- to four-week harvest experiences in Burgundy at minimal cost – £65 – and you do make a wage, get accommodation and food. The company has placed pickers aged from 18 to 60: students who want to earn some money, wine lovers who want to see how it all works and professionals who have a stressful job and want to do some physical work to relax.
Relaxing is not how those who have done it would describe it, however. ‘Working at a winery during harvest is far less romantic that most wine fans think. It is very analytical and repetitive,’ says Gloria Mercado-Martin, director of oenology at Domaine Chandon, a Moët & Chandon sparkling wine property in Napa Valley. What Mercado-Martin doesn’t mention, though, is the atmosphere in the field at the end of the day. Blumer says his best memories are of the camaraderie, the food and the wine.
The wine harvests vacation could put you in the field in more ways than one. Gary Madden took a home winemaking class at Davis University in California. ‘I spent my sabbatical as a cellar rat/harvest helper,’ he says. From a weekend wine hobbyist, he is now the general manager of Lieb Family Vineyards on Long Island, New York.
Who to contact
The website is in German but is one of the main contacts for agricultural work.
One of the main sites for work in Australia and New Zealand
Message board for short-term harvest or winery work.
Australian and International Agricultural Exchange
Appellation Contrôlée, Ulgersmaweg 26C, 9731 BT Groningen, The Netherlands. Tel: +31 5 0549 2434.
Two- to four-week grape harvest based in Beaujolais and Mâcon, France. Paid by kilo or hour, includes basic accommodation and food.
UK residents only. Grape, fruit and produce jobs in the UK. Tel: +44 (0) 1943 816 850
PO Box 389, St Helena, CA 94574, USA.
Full-time, part-time and short-term jobs in the US wine industry.
CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange) has been designated by the US government to administer this exchange visitor visa programme. Must be a university student.
CAEP, Communicating for Agriculture Exchange Program, 112 East Lincoln Avenue, Fergus Falls, MN 56537, Tel: +1 218 739 3241.
Anyone under the age of 28 is eligible. Wine internships with a stipend, room and board in France, Australia, New Zealand, Austria and South Africa. Visa assistance is also provided.