Making a toast to the grape harvest

Spending a working holiday picking grapes in Bordeaux, France.

The celebration of Thanksgiving dinner can often give us an opportunity to share our stories of the harvest from both young and old – helped by all those wonderful smells wafting from the dishes on the table – which are our biggest memory triggers.

What we drink with our meals – such as wine – can also evoke them too, so allow me to share one of my own…

At the age of 19, I took off to travel Europe for six months, with the hope of having some work along the way to stretch out my meagre savings. As luck would have it, a chance encounter with a bloke at a small pub in England blessed my newfound Australian companion and I with the possibility of a grape-harvesting gig with a Swiss family he worked for in the famous area of Bordeaux, France. A letter was sent off post-haste to secure our spots in the fields and two months later we arrived, having no idea what this working holiday would look like or what would be in store for us.

We were picked up on a warm October day at the train station by a friendly and thankfully English-speaking member of the family, who then motored us through miles and miles of gently rolling hills with properties of all ages and character – many with ancient gnarly-trunked vineyards, along with their centuries-old estate homes that had slave and servant wings from days of old.

Their own seasonal home was relatively new at 150 years old and we were settled in to our own big bedroom, complete with fireplace, feeling much more at ease and eager to start picking.

Our next three weeks were spent working fast and hard – bending, reaching and snipping to wrestle the clusters off the vines, and lifting full buckets up high to dump them into the bigger bucket that hung from the back of the strongest member of the group, who walked continually back and forth to the tractor and trailer.

It wasn’t long before we got the nimble-fingered knack of using those super-sharp snips without taking the tips of our fingers off.

But at the end of the first few days, our hands, arms and shoulders were incredibly sore until we got used to it. When it rained, the bright orange clay turned to thick, greasy muck that sucked our boots right off when we tried to walk. But no matter how tough it got at times, the cheerful singing and chatter never ceased.

As is the tradition of the grape harvest, the labour is usually a family-and-friends affair, along with a few extra hands like our British friend and us. So the banter at the big table was friendly, familiar and full of laughter. Breakfast was relatively brief, but lunch lasted almost two hours and dinner didn’t end until late into the evening.

We enjoyed extraordinarily delicious meals prepared by the family’s cooks, which always ended with French pastries and chocolates – all the while washing it all down with that wonderful wine.

Water, it seemed, was only available for working, brushing and bathing, and our slightly tipsy condition after lunch certainly raised the risk of losing bits off our digits.

There was a brief break after a couple of weeks when all the bins were full, so while they were being processed in town, we three were able to work a few days for a old French count who was well into his late 90s. His crumbling estate dated back to the 1600s and we ate from a large cast-iron soup pot that dangled over the fireplace. I plunked away once on his old grand piano for him (which was easier than trying to communicate), while I gawked at his enormous tattered tapestries that hung from the high walls.

By the end of the harvest and after having acclimatized our bodies to the vast amounts of wine, we were a bunch of well-oiled picking and snipping machines.

The pay was poor but the hospitality and experiences were rich, and those memories of mine have been shared for years to those who are willing to listen to them. We now have our very own homegrown and award-winning cottage wineries in the North Okanagan and Shuswap, so for the past couple of years I’ve gone back to the patch for fun, not only to relive those wonderful memories, but to create new ones as well.

-Other columns can be found on Westaway’s blog at http://gaiagardening.ca/