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Wine to 5: Ailsa Chambers, grape picker

Inside a professional’s everyday life, Decanter speaks to Ailsa Chambers, grape picker at Rathfinny Wine Estate.

Ailsa Chambers began her wine career in public relations at Moët-Hennessy in London. Having run non-wine related businesses at home, she returned to the wine industry after harvesting at Rathfinny, and now divides her time between the vineyards of Rathfinny and taking tours around the vineyards of Henners, nearby.

How did you end up picking grapes at Rathfinny [in Sussex, England]?

In common with many other harvest pickers, it had been on my bucket list for a number of years and I was curious to find out more about my local wine estate and its [then] soon to be acclaimed sparkling wines. In addition, having previously worked in the wine trade, I was also interested in learning more about a different side of the industry – literally from its grass roots up. Prior to working at harvest, I had been juggling running a small business from home with bringing up three daughters.

What’s the best thing about doing the harvest work?

Working outside in the fresh air of the scenic South Downs, while enjoying the camaraderie among the vines – and the great sense of achievement at the end of every day. Nobody ever has a problem sleeping at night during harvest.

And the worst?

It can be quite physically demanding, so it’s maybe not for everyone.

What’s the most common misconception about it?

The weather. Many people imagine they’ll be picking grapes under azure skies. Another is that people don’t think they’ll need to walk very far to pick grapes. Rathfinny has 93 hectares under vine so it’s easy to walk 10km a day or more, with quite a few South Downs slopes thrown in, too.

Any special highlights?

Many around the interesting people I have met, of all ages and from all walks of life. Harvest is sometimes used by Rathfinny as a way of recruiting keen and capable locals
to work in the vineyard the following year. This has led to me working part-time in the vineyard all year round and, during harvest, being promoted to the lofty heights of team leader. During my first harvest year I was one of about 50 pickers. This year we may need up to 250. I have loved watching Rathfinny grow.

Have you ever made any mistakes?

Not being properly kitted out for the weather was a major mistake and getting soaked through on my very first day was the consequence. Being in the UK, sometimes (well, quite often) we have to pick in inclement weather – potential pickers, please take note.

What makes a good picker?

As in many jobs, the most important skill is to listen to what you’re being asked to do. It’s not a difficult role but, like any premium wine producer, Rathfinny is fussy about the grapes it puts in the press, so it’s important to check each bunch for ripeness and potential disease. The other easily forgotten advice concerns the sharpness of harvest ‘snips’ and the vulnerability of fingers. Otherwise, being reasonably fit, adaptable and having a sense of humour are all important.

What does the typical day look like?

Harvest generally starts in October and Rathfinny is often one of the last vineyards to pick. We usually work from 8am until around 4.30pm, though that will depend on the volume of grapes needed for the press that day. Harvest usually lasts between two and three weeks, and after a couple of days the picking teams begin to bond, conversation levels rise among the vines and cakes start to make an appearance. Indeed, Rathfinny’s annual harvest is fuelled almost exclusively on homemade baking.

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