We all know that the Hollywood image of grape picking in France isn't exactly the truth. The work is backbreaking, the dust is choking, the farmer is quite often stressed and bad-tempered and as for that scene where everyone sits down for a sumptuous lunch at a long lunch table in the shade of the trees... yeah, right.
The increased use of mechanical pickers has decreased grape picking opportunities - and perhaps this is not unconnected with the increased employment legislation concerning vendangeurs. The combination of social charges, health cover, restricted working hours, and the state minimum pay instead of wages taken in kind (ie meals, bottles of wine, etc) means that many vignerons simply don't employ any vendangeurs any more.
Indeed, up north in Champagne they've worked out a cunning scheme whereby tourists pay vast sums of cash to for grape-picking holidays, and in other places where real grape pickers are still used, the terms and conditions exclude any leisured lunches or bonhomie in the bunkhouse: you arrive, you pick, you eat the sandwich you brought with you that morning, you pick more and then you go home.
All of which reflects the changing world, and perhaps gives us a peephole into the modern farmer's life. But none of which is good news if you have a romantic yearning to wear a straw hat, pick grapes, and help create next year's vintage. Not to mention those lunches...
So I was thrilled last month when a British magazine asked me to take some photos of a vendange. It seemed about as near as I would ever get to picking grapes myself.
The harvest was taking place on a tiny vineyard owned by an Anglo/French family in the foothills of the Cévennes and the pickers were an international bunch of friends and acquaintances. There were people from Holland and Germany as well as from France and the UK and the deal was simple: it wasn't a job, so they weren't being paid. They were therefore getting lunch and crates of wine in return for their labours, and the atmosphere was terrific.
As the gang picked and various dogs nosed through the undergrowth or dozed in the shade, there was the buzz of conversation over the regular thud of bunches of grapes falling into the buckets, and a real sense of wanting to get the grapes picked before the predicted rains arrived.
As the gang picked, the vigneron chugged up and down on his baby tractor and trailer, emptying everyone's buckets and filling up a larger trailer lined with black plastic, and I think he had the hardest job because he was doing all the lifting and heaving.
And while the pickers enjoyed their well-earned fabulous lunch cooked by his mum (and served at a long table in the sahde of course), he drove the trailer containing the morning's harvest to the local cave co-operative so that it was empty again for the afternoon.
Still, even making do with a sandwich didn't seem to damp his spirits. "It's going really well," he said. "And the weather is holding out, so it looks like we'll get it all finished this week."
The team was picking in pairs, one person either side of the row of vines, each equipped with a stool and a pair of secateurs, sharing a bucket between two and moving up the row together.
"You have to watch out," said one of them. "You don't want to get your fingers nipped by the other secateurs!"
"Blood in the wine!"
"We're not making red wine!" said another.
I think harvesting anything, but especially grapes, is one of the most elemental pleasures in life. It connects you to life, to nature, to the earth in an absolutely fundamental way. And next February, when the wine is first tasted, and the family know what they've got... it'll be thanks to the gang who helped with the vendange.
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