France

Grape Picking in Champagne, France

January 18, 2018

I had the chance to join a VENDANGES, as a Vendangeur. This is a French word that means the grape picking season (don’t worry, I didn’t know what it meant either). I spent 2 weeks in Ludes, a city in the Champagne region France, which is a few hours northeast of Paris near Reims (pronounced Rawnce). 7 of those days I picked grapes.

The word vendanges embodies a large meaning. Literally, it means the grape harvesting season, however, in reality, it means more. It is a regional celebration of the grapes, farming, community, economy, lifestyle, and hard work that leads to fruits of labor (puns), parties, tasting, and much more.

When we think of grape picking in the United States, we think of John Steinbeck’s, Grapes of Wrath, we think of toiling sweat-drenched workers laboring in the fields from dawn until dusk. I won’t lie, sometimes my experience did feel like that; and for many people who pick fruit for a living, that is their reality. Fortunately, I was lucky enough working with friends and family and in a place where the celebration of the grape is more than a source of revenue. Thus, my approach to the grape picking more light-hearted and from a perspective of a cultural experience as opposed to a real job. Additionally, while many of these jobs are being lost to machines, what makes champagne special is that the grapes must be picked by hand. This, they say, preserves the quality and integrity of the grape by preventing bruises or other damages during the processing.

There are some places in the world where the culture around the food, the drink, the eating experience is greater than the food itself (even though the food is also incredible). France is one of those places. If there were to be a battle of the food kingdom, France would likely be the winner. If there were to be a civil war of food within France, the winner would sit, on their throne, their majesty, WINE. Sometimes in the USA we make jokes about cultural stuff like taking wine too seriously. The smells, the textures, the flavors, etc. Well, people in France don’t really laugh about those things. People in Champagne definitely don’t laugh. Wine is life, for everyone here. It is their passion, their religion, and their custom.

But you need to work for it….

6:30 AM, the alarm goes off. Then, from out of nowhere, a loud trumpet sounds to wake everyone up. We brush teeth, don our grape picking geawr which includes plastic water-proof overalls, old boots, gloves, hats, knee-pads, and long sleeves. We would eat a light breakfast of toast and coffee and head out the door to the vans.

By 7:15 AM we were in the van, scissors in hand. Music is playing. The sun is rising. Coffee is hitting, feeling alright. Our driver, a 35 year vendanges veteran, and work leader, Marco, is yelling some French I don’t comprehend. When we arrive to our “lines,” we get out of the car, grab our 4 kilo buckets and double team each line. Facing each other, we pick 1 kilo of grapes per minute, 8 hours a day, for 7 days. About 500 kilos per day. The work is hard and fast. You can squat, crawl, bend over, or doing anything else as long as grapes go in the bucket. However, it is also important to be careful and not cut your fingers off! Sometimes, when snipping the grapes, your fingers can come scarily close to the scissors. Almost everyone gets a small cut on their fingers in their first few days. Fortunately, nobody lost any fingers while I was there!

By 9:30 AM, we take our first beak. CHARCUTERIE TIME!!! This had to be the most cliche French experience possible in the history of French experiences. With my hands dirty and sticky with grape juice, I make myself huge sandwiches of Brie cheese, Pate, pickles and pickled onions, coffee, warm baguettes, and I eat with 20 others sitting on the grass in the vineyard. They would make some jokes, smoke some cigarettes, and have a stretch. I would laugh to myself each morning at this time as I enjoyed the moment, a beautiful time I will never forget.

10:00 AM, okay, back in the vines. Squattin’, snippin’, pickin’, liftin’, squattin’, crawlin’, aching’, pickin’…

12:00 PM, we finish the morning shift and get back in the vans and return to the maison for lunch.

12:30 PM, all our meals were amazing. Lunch would start with a glass of Ratafia, which is a form of a fortified (added alcohol) wine made from a later press of the same grapes that make Champagne – ChardonnayPinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. It is aged for 2 years minimum in oak barrels and retains a copper color. It is awesome and gets the appetite going. Then, a glass of classic champagne. Then, bread and a few different types of non-lettuce salads made from potato, cabbage, beet, carrot, or green beans, which we often mixed with dijon mustard because of the mayo sauces they were served in. Then came the first course, which was often a non-meat, but heavy dish made from potatoes or roasted vegetables. Then, meat came, often roasted in a thick cream sauce typical of French foods. Then, butter lettuce salad. Then, cheeses, which we could eat with bread. 40 minutes of eating 20 minutes of rest and we were back out there for the afternoon shift.

1:30 PM, back in the vans! Off to the lines. Back bending, legs squatting, knees to the ground, hands purple and sticky, scissors snipping the vines, rain, sun, rain, clouds, music, cars honking their horns cheering the vendanges, and the French yelling and joking and the whole time making explicit goofy fart noises to jokes I didn’t understand. After filling a 4 kilo bucket of grapes, we would dump our buckets into our “runner’s” 50 kilo bucket who would wheelbarrow the grapes back to the vans, which would immediately drive the grapes to the pressing machines while they were fresh off the vine with the best flavor. We would pick grapes until 5:30 pm, then call it a day!

5:30 PM, we collapse into the vans, exhausted after a full day. We arrive to the house where we wash our scissors and ourselves and take a rest. Shoes and clothes are always sticky with grape juice. Some people nap, some drink, some play babifoot (foosball), then we meet in the dining room again at 8:30 PM for dinner.

8:30 PM, dinner. this was always an amazing time for me. Not just because I was hungry and the food was great, but because I believe there is something magical about large dinners with good company. Bottles dotted the table filling the gaps between the 5 courses that would soar hot out of the kitchen. Laughter and conversation shook the windows and walls only to be overtook by the clink of forks and knives on the plates.

I am from a large Italian family and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities. French and Italian culture are, in my eyes, the titans of Europe’s culinary rivalries.

After dinner, local friends and family from town who were visiting for dinner would depart and say their goodbyes. A big difference in culture between the French and USA is the way greetings and goodbyes are said. Of course, there is the kissing of the cheeks. However, beyond that, it was interesting to see how each guest and young child would say hello and goodbye to each other guest individually (hand shake for men, kiss if there is a woman). I can’t remember the last party I was at in the USA where that was done.

At dinner, English was rarely spoken. Few people knew the language, and if they did it was very basic. Further, with so many French speakers around the table, English was not a priority. In reality, it was only spoken when somebody needed to communicate with me about something. But, that was fine. That is my element. I prefer to place myself in situations like these, because it is a sign that I am experience an authentic culture, and that is why I travel. It also challenges me to learn the customs, the language, ways of communication. Life is short, trial by fire is the way I like to learn. Of course, it can be awkward and difficult, however, these situations teach me about social adaptability and human understanding; these are lessons that are important to me and best taught this way.

Dinner was finished with more champagne or wine, cheeses, some green salad (butter lettuce), and desert. After, most of us were so exhausted that we slowly rolled our pressed tummies to bed in order to rest and do it all again the next day. Sometimes, we would play BabiFoot. Sometimes we’d play cards or guitar. But soon enough we were in bed drifting to sleep.

When the FINAL grape was picked from the vine, we packed into the vans and roared into town. It was time to celebrate. We drove through town blasting music and honking. The usually quiet town was alive with madness! Other wineries were finishing their harvest and celebrating, as well. Our happiness and pride for completing our first vendange – and not needing to pick another grape for a long time, was very powerful. For others, this was their 10th, 20th, or even 30th vendange. It is a tradition that the people in this region are proud of and proud to share.

We returned the the winery and drank champagne. We hugged and congratulated each other. Then, as a form of tradition, all of those who completed their first vendange were dunked in a tub of soapy water! Pretty hilarious.

For me, I like to travel in the form of chapters. I like to categorize the experience and digest it, then move on and take the lessons I learned with me. This is a mental approach that helps me remember the experience instead of letting it slip or blend with other ones when I continue to travel to new places. Doing work like this has become a way that I like to travel. It lets me see another way of life, learn a new skill, and complete a project. As I continue to travel, I suspect I will choose to shape my experiences in this way.

To find work as a grape-picker (or Vendangeur), it is best to contact the wineries of choice well in head of time. Programs like wwoof, workaway, Anefa.org and Pole-Emploi.fr all post jobs for grape picking as well. Wages are typically 8-12 euros per hour or roughly 18 cents per kilo. Sometimes food and lodging is included, sometimes not, it depends on the winery. Grape picking, like olive picking in the Mediterranean, argon oil in the Middle East, or marijuana trimming in the USA are all cultural work experience popular with travelers. But, it helps to have connections because there is a hesitancy to hire people not approved to work in the EU, but many still do.

I hope you enjoyed the story!

Kyle

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