Harvest Fever Grows: I remember when…

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Storm Clouds Gather

The Wine world is starting to ramp up Harvest Fever. Bordeaux whites grapes are well underway. Reds always need that bit more. I picked grapes in France and Switzerland 25 years ago during September and October, 1987.  It was a most satisfyingly beautiful and terrible experience.

A Tail of Two Pickings

In France, around Saumur (from which hails Saumur Champigny), the harvest was a nightmare. Workers lined up in long adjacent rows of vines and frog-marched (pardon the pun) through muddy fields to the  far distant end of the line.

We were set against each other in competition for more efficient use of time. Rain as we worked; always a poor sign for the . Bosses yelling and generally being unwilling to show pleasantries, respect or humanity towards their employees. Barking instructions and always pushing the workers for whom they had little respect and less time, to work faster.

The youth hostel where I had to stay was far from the vineyards. I made my own way there each day for the long hours of muddy laden, soaking wet, secateurs work. I couldn’t wait to leave and in fact quit before the conclusion as I felt rather abused and sullen most of the time. Not the warm and joyous celebration of the harvest experience I had expected at all.

a heavenly world

 A Heavenly World

It was so different in French-speaking Switzerland. The contrasts were across the board. Never working on a rainy day (even if the rain was overnight), being billeted by the host in a small guest house in the small village of Chexbres right next door to the family-run wine producer, who was both my courteous employer, patient teacher and genial host.

I lived with and worked for a small family business producing the most amazing boutique Saint Saphorin. In the mornings after a hearty breakfast, I would be taken with the family and friends in an open topped tractor trailer to the in some cases precipitous vineyards.

I would spend the mornings placing the carefully cut bunches into containers, keeping the work simple and enjoying the peace of the environment, bathing in the glorious sunshine and drinking in the atmosphere of Lake Geneva. We would stop for black tea and gruyer breaks, chat and laugh, smiles of epidemic proportions.

terrain makes for a tricky work place

Tough going Terrain

Later I would be tipping the fruit into the pressing machines, cleaning out the cave, joining the family for lunch, then back out to the hillsides. It all went by like a dream: ended all too quickly.

At the conclusion of the harvest it seemed like the whole village invaded our cave along with an Oompah band.  Out of the 2 weeks duration we had only worked 7 days due to overnight rain and the deed for that rain to evaporate prior to pressing. I was paid a handsome bonus for staying the whole harvest: 3 meals a day, a hotel room, language lessons, enviable working conditions, learning new skills and they still paid me a bonus?!

I made many great friendships, polished my French and then moved into the mountains to work the Winter season, but that’s another story.

The main influence on me from this experience, apart from my love of all things mountainous (and Switzerland in general) was that this had been my very first involvement in the wine industry. I am so glad I didn’t quit after Saumur.

TWM September 2012

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