A Grape Surprise

My girlfriend Dominique and I saved all spring and summer for a three-month trip to Europe. The planned highlight of our trip: picking grapes in France for the grape harvest. (Les Vendanges) From Canada, Dominique found us a job from at a French vineyard in and we booked a flight for early September. As the summer wore on and we continued to save for our trip overseas, mother nature threw a monkey wrench into our plans: a record-breaking heat wave was tearing through Western Europe. The owner of the vineyard in France called us to say that the hot weather meant an early grape harvest: if we wanted to participate in the vendanges, we would have to arrive in France by early August. Our attempts to leave Canada early were thwarted by the fact that no changes or refunds could be made to our low-cost airline tickets. We called the vineyard owner and explained our situation. He said he was sorry but we were welcome to come next year I we liked. We thanked the owner for the offer and started to look for grape harvest work that started in September. Our attempts to find work for later in the season were met with dead ends. WE both decided that after spending the spring and summer saving for our trip, we would still go to Europe in early September, vendanges or not.

The plane touched down in Lyon, France on September 8th. We made our way up to the hostel overlooking the city, exhausted from a combination of jet lag and excitement to finally be on the road. As we walked into the hostel and approached the front desk, we noticed a small piece of paper taped to the surface of the check-in counter. Scribbled hurriedly in French, the note simply said:

8 Septembre:
Travail pour cinq personnes:
Vendanges à St. Saphorin, Suisse
Appellez Immediatement

September 8? Work for five people? Vendanges? Switzerland? Urgent? Call Immediately!? Could this be work for us after all? We both thought the vendanges would all be finished by now and were surprised by Switzerland? Did vineyards exist in Switzerland? My vision of Switzerland as an alpine landscape dotted with mountains and St. Bernard rescue dogs simply didn’t mesh with growing grapes. Dominique quickly called the number and we were told there were two more week-long positions available and that we could start the next day. St. Saphorin was only 120 kilometres away and could be easily accessed by train from Lyon. Our trip had started out on an unexpected foot. In less than five hours in Europe we had already made plans to leave France and had found a job harvesting grapes!

By noon the next day we were aboard the appropriately named ‘Le Train Des Vignes’ (Train of the Vines) zipping along high above the shores of Lake Geneva. The thousands of acres of vineyards we passed through were going to fill thousands of bottles with Swiss wine. I guess the St. Bernard rescue dogs did need a vineyard or two to fill the wooden keg around their neck with life-saving brandy, after all. A cheerful Madame, greeted our arrival at the train station in St. Saphorin and drove us up the road, stopping at a massive four-storey Chateau overlooking sparkling Lake Geneva and the vineyards below. In the distance were the glacier-covered peaks of the Alps. If a handful of experts had ever sat down to agree where the best place on earth to harvest grapes was located, this had to be it.

Each morning began with a hot breakfast at 7a.m., we had an hour or so to wake up and then hop into the crew trailer with twenty other harvesters for the morning descent to the glistening dew-covered vineyards. The hot sunrise over the Alps quickly burnt off the moisture and by 10a.m. we shed our sweaters for t-shirts and hats. By mid-morning it was time for coffee break, or more realistically: chocolate and cheese break. Coffee and tea were there, but it was the giant bars of chocolate and delicious wheels of cheese that everyone looked forward to. Dominique had never liked the taste of chocolate before arriving in Europe but it took just one bite of some local Swiss chocolate to show her what she’s been missing out on all these years. After that, she was always the first one at break-time ready to peel the wrapper off the delicious choco-treats. Still full of chocolate and cheese, we all headed up the hill at noon for an hour-long hot lunch followed by an afternoon of work punctuated by yet another ‘chocolate’ break. By six in the evening we had collectively harvested several tons of grapes and were back at the dinner table again, drinking wine made from the grapes harvested by the vendangeurs of the previous year.

Dominique’s job was to cut bunches of grapes from each vine. Using a small set of garden clippers, she filled plastic containers left along each row and were picked up by ‘un porteur’ like me. My job was to carry ‘small’ containers of grapes to a ‘large’ container waiting on the closest roadway. Each ‘small’ container weighed about 35 pounds each and we carried three containers at a time on our backs using a metal rack. Had the terrain been remotely flat, hauling more than one hundred pounds of grapes would have been simple but the incredibly steep terrain made work difficult. Hauling grapes down steep staircases was tricky, but the real test came when grapes had to be hauled up staircases. We were called ‘les porteurs’ but I think of myself as a ‘wine and chocolate-fuelled Swiss grape Sherpa.’ Some nearby terrain was so remote and steep that neighbouring vineyard owners used helicopters to hoist and carry large containers of grapes from the vineyard to a central collection facility. Once the grapes left the vineyard, they were taken immediately to a collective processing facility where they were de-stemmed, pressed and put into containers that would eventually turn the juice into delicious wine.

Everybody in the vineyard was under the watchful eye of our chef de l`equipe (foreman) Thierry. His frequent shouts of “Caisse Vide!” (Empty Case!) implied that we needed to hustle and supply an empty container to people cutting bunches of grapes. His enthusiasm for his work was unmatched. Thierry had worked vineyards since before he could remember and paid tribute to his passion by commissioning the most incredible job-describing tattoo I’ve ever seen: On his upper right arm was a naked Venus figure wrapped in a bunch of grapes. Not to be outdone, three other locals by the names of ‘Pi-Loux’, ‘Pascal’ and ‘Gamel’ had made a lifetime of harvesting grapes and had Rudolph-like red noses to prove their expertise.

On the final day of harvesting, we all gathered to watch the traditional cutting of the final bunch of grapes by the vineyard’s owner, Mr. Légeret. He had presided over the land for more than forty years but this vendange was special for Mr. Légeret. It would be his last as the following year he would pass the vineyard over to his son, Christophe. With the final grapes cut, a cheer erupted and it the party started. The entire vineyard was a massive cuckoo clock and it had just struck noon. Everybody jumped into the trailer decorated in sunflowers, branches and leaves as the crew van pulled away towards the centre of the village. Songs and cheers rang out as our presence brought happy applause from the third floor balconies. Villagers came outside to acknowledge our completed vendange and join us in singing songs which I’d never heard before but managed to make up word and fit in well. Having completed our work and successfully entertained a few villagers, the victory party made its way back to the chateau for a harvest feast worthy of a king.

One of the massive plates of food was covered in grapes from the vineyard. The grapes tasted delicious apparently because of the hot summer. When I asked if the sweet grapes would make a good bottle of wine we were told that yes, hopefully, but it was a superstition to never predict excellent wine. The theory was that if you proclaimed that your wine would be a vintage or millisieme year, it would never happen. Were the grapes that we harvested good enough to produce a ‘vintage’ bottle of wine? The only way to find out was to return again the following year. Everybody who worked at the vineyard was invited back for the next year, many eager to literally taste the fruits of their labour. The following day everybody went their separate ways with a paycheque, a bottle of wine and a week of memories to last a lifetime.

There may probably be people at each vineyard who speak a little English, but anyone with basic high school French should be able to find work quite easily. The physical effort required harvesting grapes is roughly equivalent to spending an entire day gardening. If you think you'd like gardening for 8 hours a day, with two breaks for chocolate and cheese, an hour-long lunch, free room and board and be able to drink all the free wine you’d like, then working vendanges is for you! Oh, and you’ll get paid between $50 - $120 CAD per day depending on the vineyard.

copyright © 2004 by Kyle MacDonald

More info about vendanges can be found at: http://www.anpe.fr/actualites/affiche/juillet_2004/saison_vendanges_2590.html

Because of the relatively short season and large amount of labour needed to harvest grapes, work visas are not always needed - but a tattoo of a naked maiden against a backdrop of grapes won't hurt your chances.


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