Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Harvest

To most folks, the harvest is an ephemereal, romantic idea, a time of the year when leaves start to turn orange, the weather cools, and the vintners pick their grapes. In their minds, the grapes are tread by foot by happy workers stained red and singing La Marseilleise while eating baguettes and paté. Outside, women make the lunch while a musician plays the accordion and dogs and chickens run free through the farmhouse. Everyone's happy, everyone's got a bottle of wine in their hands, and everyone's dancing.


Well, not quite. Even in the smallest wineries, harvest is a maddening affair. It is a time when the vintner tries to ensure that everything goes right. He has spent the past year preparing for it, maintaining his machines, seeing to the health of the vineyards, and shooing pesky animals looking for a quick snack. As harvest approaches, things pick up speed, until the time the grapes are deemed ripe enough to pick. Then it becomes a race to get as many of the grapes as possible, before rainy weather/hot weather/strikes/labor shortages/migrating birds/random acts of God intervene and render the grapes useless. And it doesn't end in the vineyard. To make the best wines, grapes have to sorted (all sorts of nasties like rotten grapes, leaves, lizards and spiders must be removed) before being crushed and sent to the fermentation tanks. Even after all the prep work, Nature has a way of throwing a curve and destroying a crop-load of grapes, endangering the farmer's livelihood. So many thing can go wrong at any given time that it's remarkable that anyone would willingly underake such a risky (and nowadays, expensive) task. For those who do it right, it truly is a work of love and passion.

In 2006, I had the honor of working the harvest in my beloved Burgundy, for one of the largest and well-regarded wineries in the area,
Bouchard Père et Fils. I followed the harvest from start to finish, and even got a chance to work with the pickers one sunny Wednesday morning, in the legendary Montrachet vineyard.

To help you get an idea of what it's like to be a picker, I am reposting this tale:

Chardonnay hanging in Le Montrachet vineyard

Wednesday, September 20th was, as I was starting to say on a daily basis, another beautiful day in Burgundy. The weather forecast was for temperatures between 11° and 23°C, with clear skies interspersed with clouds.

But, to be honest, at the hour at which I woke up, I couldn’t have cared less about any forecasts. I was supposed to start picking in the Montrachet vineyard, and I could barely sleep I was so nervous in anticipation. I woke up around 5am, my stomach in knots. Looking out the window, it was pitch black, with just some hints of the approaching dawn. I ran down to the local boulangerie and picked up a croissant for my breakfast, then headed to Beaune’s train station. There I’d meet up with the pickers and the buses. The sun was rising by now, stunning gold and red colors filling the eastern horizon.

At the station’s brasserie, people were standing at the bar, drinking their espressos, and, in some cases, glasses of wine (sorry, no tasting notes). Smoke drifted through the place, as I suppose it should in France. People were in generally good cheer despite the hour and the cool, crisp air. Folks were bantering about, and some locals seemed surprised that Bouchard was starting the harvest already. I followed a group to the station’s parking lot, where several large tourist buses were awaiting the grape-pickers. There I met up with Christophe Bouchard, who handed me to a Chef d’Equipe named Nicolas. He would be my guide in the field.

I was surprised at how cheery the people in the bus were. Considering the hour at which most had woken up, they must have consumed prodigious amounts of coffee and cigarettes to be this wired. There were thin layers of morning mist in the hollows, and the sun was a fantastic ball of fire. Another beautiful day in Burgundy. The bus rolled down the N74 to the village of Puligny-Montrachet, where we took a turn and headed up the hill. Picking teams were already in the fields in some plots, indicating that other domaines were starting as well. Halfway up the hill, a small road paralled the N74, with an old stone wall on both sides. Vines stretched around as far as the eye could see. Our destination was upslope from the road.

Wow. Le Montrachet.

The bus stopped and Nicolas stood up front and told people to watch their work today, they were picking Montrachet and at 300 Euros a bottle they shouldn’t leave a grape behind. Everyone joked that perhaps they’d get a few bottles when the work was done. Really? That would be great! Then we filed out of the bus, where a pail full of sécateurs awaited us. Everyone grabbed one, then took a plastic bin and headed into the vineyard.

I was thrown right into the mix, with just a quick introduction as to how to cut the grapes. Luckily there were old hands supervising our teams and they showed me what I was doing wrong (lots!). Always cut the stem, never the wood, yank the leaves out of the way, cut the bunches hanging between the bottom and the third wire. The higher bunches are usually the least ripe, with some verjus grapes.

The grapes were large and tightly clustered, and tasted slightly sweet with a hint of white flowers. I crouched down and started clipping, grabbing bunches of big, juicy white grapes. Immediately, I learned a few things.

A picker in Le Montrachet

Leaves are my enemy.

They tease me with hints of the hidden treasure, ensnaring my hands in their vines, making me lose track of my fingers’ whereabouts, refusing to pull away the way I want them to. I grasp at them with hands wet from grape juice, the morning dew, mud and the blood from a clipped pinky (if anyone finds a fingertip in their 2006 Montrachet, please send it back to me). Grapes burst in my hands as I toss them into the bin, my sécateur quickly slick yet sticky from juice. Dirt covers my shoes, digs under my nails, somehow gets into my eyes, there’s a fine layer of moist dust on everything within a few minutes of starting. I am falling behind, but when I look around I’m as fast as the slowest ones.


Suddenly my movements become more fluid, more natural, my arm snaking its way between the hated leaf, the wire and the bunch’s stem. Clip, clip, two bunches in my hand, throw them in the bin, shuffle forward either squatting or bending over. Repeat. Hey, I’ve got the hang of this!


I’m doing great! Nope, I’m almost as slow as ever. Damn, here I thought I was nailing it. The first pickers to finish their rows hang out at the top, smoking and lazing in the morning sun, mocking the rest of us. I’m quickly spotted as a neophyte, though my black shoes (not sneakers, big mistake) are maybe the give-away. That and my speed…or lack thereof. I try to chat with my neighbors, but they quickly outpace me. People call for empty bins. They’ve filled theirs already??? Shit, mine’s only half full.

My body starts complaining at all this work. Are you kidding? Have you seen the old ladies with missing teeth, the retirees with beer bellies, the guy in midlife crisis, heck the eighteen year old girls (well, them, yes, I may be engaged but I’m not dead)? My body starts wondering what it’s done to deserve this sudden abuse. Deal with it, I tell it, we work out (sometimes) for a reason, right? Ignore the dinners of escargots, foie gras, boeuf Charolais and mushrooms. Forget the Poulets de Bresse, the almond croissants, the assiettes de charcuterie.

How do you forget it when it’s there to remind you every second that you’re crouching in the stony dirt? Mocking you like an evil guardian angel, not on your shoulder but sitting on your waist?

Wow, I’m picking Montrachet, but to me it’s nothing but hidden treasure I need to cut from its home. We’re constantly reminded that this wine costs 300 Euros a bottle. Are we getting any? Are there bottles of older Monty lined up at the top as enticement? No, not even water. Damn, I’m thirsty. And sweaty. And, judging from the flies attracted to me, stinky. A Frenchman once told me that to smell like you just made love was a good thing. I am redefining “a good thing”.


Wow, is it a tough job to manually pick the grapes. I have an enormous amount of respect for those that do, and who do it in general good cheer (though by their own admission, the weather helped a LOT). Their ages ranged from the eighteen-year old girls to the ladies who’d been doing it for over 20 years, and from students to retirees. Everyone flirts, jokes around and generally tries to take their mind off the work. The Chefs d’Equipes cajole, joke and push the pickers to do well and not take too many breaks, especially smoke breaks. So lots of folks are clipping with a half-smoked cigarette sticking out the sides of their mouths. Despite the back-breaking, foot-numbing, eye-gouging, finger-cutting work, folks seemed in good spirits. Complaints were good-natured unless something serious happened.

After several hours, when I have to leave, I am sore, tired but also a bit sad. I’ve grown fond of my little team, their spirit and courage has kept me going. I feel as if I’m abandoning them, leaving them to toil and broil in the mid-day sun. I know that while the work is fast and furious in the morning, it will slow down a bit as the day heats up and people get tired. So I head down the hill and clamber into a truck taking my grapes to the winery.

My driver, Denis Chantin, is also a winemaker in the Hautes Côtes de Beaune. With a constant smile on his face, he was a great guy to chat with as we made our way down the Montrachet hill to the winery on the outskirts of Savigny. At the winery I was met by Patrice Preney (Chef de Laboratoire) and Hugues Massu (Chef Comptable – Head of Accounting). Hugues explained that Bouchard asks all its employees, even the office workers, to participate in the harvest. It allows for a better understanding of what goes on and builds a sense of team spirit. He did seem rather happy to be out of the office and in the clean, sun-filled air.

Tasting first-press Chardonnay

The grapes were processed almost as soon as they arrived. Sorting tables quickly picked through them, though as the Chardonnay this year has been in excellent health there was very little to remove. From there they went straight to the pneumatic press, which operated at different levels of pressure to get different effects. This first juice tasted of slightly sour apple juice, with a grainy feel to it. That would be the fine dirt and other things that had collected on the skins of the grapes. Another press that was running had juice collecting at the bottom, so Patrice Preney let me taste that as well. It was a bit sweeter and rounder, with a smoother mouthfeel. Finally, depending on the health of the vintage, SO2 was added. This year not much was added as the grapes came in very healthy.

It was interesting to see how clean the winery was kept. There were people constantly cleaning, scrubbing, mopping and generally trying to maintain a relatively sanitary condition. Safety was also a key point, Hugues stressed, pointing to the CO2 alarms and the harness that the guy who rakes the grapes in the press has to wear. He said that Bouchard has all winery workers go through a safety regimen before the harvest, and everyone is constantly reminded to be careful.

And I can understand why. Folks are stressed and on edge, even in a good vintage. They have a ton of work to do and a very short amount of time to do it. By now I was pooped, my feet hurt, my back was killing me, and my pinky smarted. I went back to Beaune and was so tired that I didn’t eat (though I did have a half-bottle of something or other).

So there you have it. Sounds fun, eh?

Pictures from that trip can be found HERE, no need to sign in, just click on the first photo.


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