At this point, I'm sure that's the question you all have running through your mind. Enough about all the food and French way of life, what's the work actually like!?
The simple answer is it kinda sucks. Now that I have a bit of distance from it though, I find myself feeling like I wish I could go back. Or maybe I'll try to do it again next year. I'll get to why I think that is a little later.
But first, to start, take a look at this:
That's kind of what you see when you first stand next to a vine and look down. I tried my best to get some good pictures of this stuff, but there really weren't too many times when I had a free second, when my hands weren't also totally covered in grape pulp and sticky juice. But basically that's what it looks like, with a lot of times the grapes being even harder to see underneath the leaves. The covering of leaves over the top of the grapes is called the canopy, and it helps protect the grapes from getting too dried out by the sun. It's also a giant pain, because it means you really have to get in there and get dirty to find the grapes. Our lesson on how to do this the first day took about 20 seconds. Our boss brought us over to a vine, gave us each a sécateur (pruning shear), like this:
And showed us how to clip the grapes. You just have to find where the bunch is attached to the vine, and clip it with your right hand, pulling the whole bunch off with your left, and then you toss the bunch into your bucket.
Now for those of you who haven't been totally geeking out on wine education, you might need a little review on vine training techniques, specifically the gobelet or bush training technique used in Beaujolais.
Now that you've done your review and/or dozed off from sheer boredom, I can explain what vines actually look like in Beaujolais. The root comes out of the ground, and about 4 or 5 gnarly looking wood things come out of the root. You can see what that gnarly looking stuff looks like in the bottom right corner of this picture:
Every year, after the harvest is complete, they will remove everything green and leave that gnarly looking part. Then the next year, out of the wood sprouts little green shoots, which wind there way up, down, and sideways. There are little wires running around each vine, and when the shoots get long enough, someone will come along and train the shoots to the wires, to keep things relatively tidy. If you didn't make them start all over every year, the shoots would just take over. You wouldn't be able to work the vines, and they'd produce a ton of grapes that would all be very diluted and wouldn't make very good wine.
Out of these shoots come grapes and leaves. For the most part the leaves are on the top, and the grapes are underneath the leaves, but there are some leaves mixed in between bunches of grapes, to ensure the canopy coverage gives adequate protection from the sun. Generally the grape bunches hang down from the shoots, like this:
But sometimes the bunch ends up growing sort of up from the shoot, and the grapes fall around the shoot, so you have to hunt out where it's connected. Then sometimes leaves get mixed into the bunch, and you need to get those out of there, you don't want any leaves in your bucket, because leaves don't make good wine. So while it might seem a simple job to cut bunches of grapes and throw them into a bucket (and it is really, I mean it only took her 20 seconds to explain it to us) it can get pretty complicated. A lot of the time when you first approached a vine, you'd be staring at a thicket of leaves and shoots, with no grapes in site, so you had to tear through them to find the yummy grapes underneath. You also have to keep an eye out for rot, and cut out those grapes that were rotten. I personally found it really satisfying to find a bunch like this one, without any rot. Such a perfectly beautiful little entity. Every once in a while I'd have to just stick a bunch in my face and suck down 20 or so grapes at once. And oh my god, you have never tasted grapes as good as that in your life! Just bursting with flavor and juice. Very, very sweet, also. And the skins were much thicker than what you'd find in the grocery store. Sort of more like a concord grape skin. What I'd usually do was suck out all the juice, and then spit out the skins and seeds. It made for a great energy pick me up while you were working.
The highest part of the vine stands at about 3.5 feet, so that means you are leaning over 60% of the time. Standing and leaning over the vine was the best way to get to all the grapes near the top, but often you'd run across a bunch of grapes very close to the ground. You could get to them from a standing position, but try tying your shoes for about 15 minutes straight and you'll realize that this puts an enormous amount of strain on your lower back. Eventually everyone has to take a knee, or like me, Mr. Smarty Pants, sit right down on the ground. My first day I was totally convinced I had figured the whole thing out, and was going to emerge from the vines victorious, back unscathed. I thought the rest of the Frenchies just didn't want to get dirty on the ground, but I wasn't afraid to get a little muddy (actually I got really muddy). But then the second day when I started on the ground and tried to raise my arms up, I realized I'd almost pulled all the muscles in my upper back. Try sitting on the ground cross-legged, extend your arms in front of you, and lean forward as far as you can. Now waive your arms all over the place and repeat for about 8 hours and you'll see what I mean. In the end I decided a combo approach was best, some bending over, some on one knee, and occasionally sitting for the very low grapes.
When we first started, I thought, ok, this is no big deal, I can do this. We weren't, as I had fantasized, in the mountains, lugging anything heavy, the fields were nice and flat. The weather was pleasant enough, and the job was pretty simple. But as the hours built on, this became a mind and body numbing experience. Actually my body wasn't really numb, it was really just in agony. Particularly on the second day, having to deal with soreness in newfound muscles that were being forced to do what they had just done to get sore in the first place. Don't be fooled people, there is no in-shape for this kind of activity. You can not prepare for it. The first 3 days are complete physical hell, until your body adjusts.
The system of grape harvesting is very simple, and probably hundreds of years old, but it is pretty brilliant in my opinion. There are 20 grape pickers and 2 people who are porters (there will be more on their job later in a second post), that get to wear giant plastic yellow bins in a primitive sort of backpack setup, who each take 10 of the pickers. The pickers all start at the same point, and make there way down the line of vines. Some pickers are faster than others, either because they've done it before, they're shorter and therefore closer to the ground (ladies definitely tended to have an advantage here) or maybe their row of vines was a little sparser than someone elses. If one person fell really far behind, the boss would jump into their row a ways ahead of them and pick for a while. Then when that picker caught up to where the boss started, he or she could jump ahead and be back in line with everyone else. As the pickers fill up their buckets, the porters would come along, and the picker could empty their bucket into the yellow bin. The porters bring their loads back to a larger bin attached to a tractor at the edge of the vines, and then return to the vines for more grapes.
The brilliance of the system to me seems to involve some math that works out just right. Each porter's yellow bin could hold about 3 people's full buckets of grapes. So the porters would have to make 3 or so trips out to empty everyone's buckets. If there were 12 people per porter, it wouldn't work, after you emptied your bucket you'd have to wait too long to empty it again, and you'd be stuck for a while with an overflowing bucket, unable to pick any more. Also, the vines were divided up into rectangles about 130 yards in length. When the pickers got to the middle of the vines, the tractor would move to the other side of the vines, so the porters didn't have to walk too far to empty their loads. The system pretty much worked perfectly so your bucket was almost never too full, and you could always keep picking. It seems to be that someone was thinking when they chose to divided the vines up in the size they did. Not only that, but the room we all slept in was just big enough for 22 beds, and the dining room had just enough room to sit 22 people. Pretty smart, right?