Journal of a Harvester

by Sarah Hernan

Since the 2014 harvest is complete in France and Italy, you may have read reports from the different producers giving their first impressions about the new vintage. Yet we rarely consider what harvest is like from a grape picker’s point of view.

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Harvest 2014 at Domaine du Salvard, Loire

As wine tourism becomes more popular year after year, certain vineyards offer their customers a chance to participate in the harvest: one or several days working as a grape picker, experiencing the life of a vigneron. This sounds pretty exciting and the formula is generally very successful.

But harvest is not always as enjoyable as the wine tourism publicity makes it out to be.

Anybody who has been a harvester at least one time in his life—and I don’t mean just for one or two days, but during a whole harvesting season—will agree with me when I say that the exercise is no pleasure cruise.

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Harvest 2014 at Domaine d’Aupilhac, Languedoc

In France, harvest jobs are often carried out by people who work in the vineyard all year long, but most of the time students, backpackers, or temporary workers make up the crew.

During the harvest season, the weather is unpredictable. Mother Nature likes to give the vignerons and their staff a hard time. The harvester has to wear the perfect equipment to overcome either blazing heat, or torrents of water. In a single day you can experience the four seasons, crawling in the mud in the morning and then baking like a steak on the grill in the afternoon.

In addition to the weather, the vineyard’s topography could be a nightmare. Steep slopes and huge stones turn a simple walk into an obstacle course. In the northern Rhône Valley, for example, some plots are so steep that the harvesters are hired based on their climbing skills as they have to pick the grapes while tied to a rope.

However, this description is not complete, as it misses the most important element of harvest: the human aspect. The atmosphere during harvest is one of my best memories. In spite of the hard work, joy and good humor are always there. Songs, jokes, and laughter are the perfect fuel to keep going day after day. Depending on where you are working, you might even have the chance to be fed by the producer’s family and enjoy a delicious and generous meal.

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Catherine Breton during harvest 2014, Loire

While the grapes are fermenting in the cellars, post-harvest feasts can begin. They are unforgettable experiences, totally worth the tiresome weeks of picking. Post-harvest feasts also mark the beginning of the long wait to taste the new vintage and enjoy the fruit of your hard labor.

If, like me, patience is not your middle name, I invite you to try the new wines that have arrived in the shop. I am sure these delightful treats will be very helpful to make your waiting much more bearable.

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Harvest 2014 at Manni Nössing, Alto Adige

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