(As seen by an interested visitor from the vantage point of her apartment across the street from a winery in Pommard, and from the windows of our rental car as we tour about the valley.)
The air hums with activity and excitement. It is the vendage in Burgundy! The frenzied dash to harvest all those grapes. It is a time of hope and anxiety. Should we pick now? If we wait a few days will the grapes be that much better? Will it start to rain and water down the crop? Or worse… will there be the devastation of hail? The winemakers eye the sky, taste the grapes, and, with a prayer, make the decisions. Call in the pickers!
Friends, family, students, migrant workers, and even eager tourists all instantly gather to strip the fields of the bounty.
A picker’s day starts early.
There is a church about a block away from our apartment that regularly strikes the quarter hours and bongs on the hour. Thankfully, it is silent at night. However, at least during this time of year, the wake up call is at 6:30. After the half hour is struck, the large bell rings repeatedly. You know, I swear that church tower creeps closer in the dead of night so it can bong directly outside my window at 6:30. After I am thoroughly awake, I imagine it sneaking back to its foundations, snickering.
By the time I have roused myself, dressed, and acquired my daily treasures of croissants and pain au chocolate from the nearby patisserie, the workers are arriving. There is a quiet camaraderie as they gather in the vinter’s home. I am sure it is the smell of bacon, fresh rolls, and coffee that lures them in. This army of pickers definitely runs on its stomach!
Later, a little louder, a lot fuller, they all climb into the “people mover” vans. The day is sunny but there is a fall chill in the morning air which keep the pickers from over heating. They are carrying lots of water bottles and other tools of the trade: gloves, pruning sheers, and black buckets.
My favourite is the big white tubs that some people strap to their backs. In the distance, when you see a group of pickers in the field, these white buckets look like the folded wing casings of moths slowly traipsing the rows. The other pickers clip off the clumps of grapes and when their black bucket is full, they dump these grapes into a moth-wing basket. When this is full, this basket is dumped into the waiting grape hauler. In turn, when the hauler is full, it gets whisked away to the vintners.
Some grapes, especially those for white wines, are picked by machine. These are amazing gismos! The farmer drives them down the rows and the machine shakes the vines like crazy, dislodging grapes but, surprisingly, very few leaves. We’ve walked fields after they have been machine picked and been astonished that just the grapes are gone. The leaves and even the stems that used to hold the grapes are still intact. It is like magic! Mind you, there are some bunches of grapes, especially hiding near the bottom of a vine, that sometimes escape the machine. To sample these forgotten treasures is lovely, full of warm, sweet juice but with the sought-after tartness that will bring balance to the wine.
Back at the winery across the street, a hauler full of white grapes has arrived. From the vantage point of our 2nd floor window, we realize this hauler is an extraordinary gismo in its own right. It is partially backed into the winery and a hose is attached to the back end. As grapes start disappearing, we see there is a huge spiralling auger at the bottom of the hauler. It is pulling grapes to the back where by some mechanism I don’t understand, they are destemmed, crushed, and the hose takes the grape juice directly to the tanks for fermentation. Only hours ago, these grapes were on the vine. Now they already starting the process of becoming wine.
Meanwhile, in the fields, the pickers are pausing for a well deserved lunch. Some vintners use the vans to take the workers back to the winery for lunch. Some bring food trucks right out to the field. There you see the workers lounging about atop stone walls, sitting in the shade of hazelnut trees, or getting a second helping from the food truck.
In my opinion, the cooks who provide this food have as big a job as the pickers! I loved the smells that came out of the kitchen in the winery across the street. Onions, melted cheese, ham, spices, jammy fruit, and, of course, garlic. Once they actually put two pies out on the stone window ledge to cool. I’ve only seen that in cartoons! As in the cartoons, I could almost see the scent wafting up to our window. Mmm… tarte a l’onion! So tempting.
When the workers return from the fields this army is well fed. Everyone is tired but there is an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. They are all part of something wonderful, the creation of some of the most beloved wines in the world. Each night there is a celebration; laughing, cheering, and even dancing. I think if I were to work at the vendage, I would want to work at this winery. They seem to have so much fun!
But the nightly celebrations do not last long. The washing up is done to the tune of many a good rock and roll song and the workers depart for their various beds. After all, that church tower with its overenthusiastic chime is going to start bonging far too early, calling everyone together for another day of hard work. There are more grapes to harvest!