It was early in the morning and tractor drivers in charge of transporting grapes to the châteaux were having breakfast of vine-twig grilled pork chops, garlic sauce, and a lot of red wine to wash it down.
The morning mist was slowly lifting over the perfectly tended vineyards as rays of sunlight broke through. It was going to be a perfect day in Bordeaux and everyone was happy.
When you are picking grapes, weather matters a great deal. A depressingly hot day doesn’t help spirits, nor the thirst.
In Bordeaux pickers are grouped into teams of 60 – 70 people to harvest the precious fruit carefully, vine by vine, making decisions about the ripeness of each bunch. If a bunch fails to show a desired level of ripeness, it is left on the vine for a second picking.
Grape pacing is back-bricking work. One must fight insects, trying to get the ripe fruit and make split second decisions, which bunch to pick. When the basket is full, a hood carrier comes by for the picker to empty his/her basket into the hoof.
In some chateaux at the end of each row there is a long sorting table, where experienced ladies inspect every bunch and excise rotten fruit.
Every bunch delivered tot eh press house must be completely healthy.
In some instances the hood is emptied into a bin installed on a flatbed truck. In a huge bin grapes start to exude a little of the juice and a small but undesirable wild fermentation starts.
Quality oriented chateaux or vineyards use small crates that can accommodate up to 17 kilograms to protect bunches.
Still bunches are sorted by experienced ladies at the end of each row.
A delicious but never too heavy lunch is provided to avoid lethargy from setting in for the afternoon.
Dinner is also provided, although in some chateaux pickers may be given ingredients to cook, if they so desire.
When dinner is provided it becomes a social affair with plenty of wine, entertainment by workers, and sometimes even musicians for dancing.
At the end of the two-week harvest, pickers are compensated and move on to another region further north.
Many French, Swiss, German vineyard owners hire locals, family members, and migrant workers from Morocco, Algeria, Poland, Bulgaria and other countries.
In California Mexicans provide the major part of pickers.
Many vineyards owners now use mechanical harvesters for speed, to reduce cost, but mechanical harvesting damages the fruit and quality-oriented wineries avoid mechanically picked grapes.
In Canada, pickers may be a combination of local labour, family, landed immigrants, and temporary workers from the Caribbean islands, Mexico, central America, or even Thailand.
In Ontario harvesting is always a challenge. The weather may change quickly from sunny, to rain, or temperature drops precipitously.
Frozen grape harvesting is more challenging and requires careful planning as grapes must be harvested at – 8 C and before sunrise, to ensure the grapes remain frozen before pressing.
Ice wine grape picking is not only backbreaking, but also requires fighting the unrelenting cold. Hands must be protected, and a shift cannot last longer than four hours. A short break after a couple hours and hot refreshment is provided.
Harvesting starts at two or three in the morning.
Some wineries try to get volunteers from Toronto to pick ice wine grapes with the promise of several bottles of the finished ice wine, but these days there are few volunteers.
Ice wine grape picking can be fun but only if there is a group of hearty and like-minded people in the team.
In England, a few travel agencies arrange wine tours that include one day of grape picking.
If you are interested in picking grapes for fun contact Service Vendanges, Baron Philippe de Rothschild or write to 33250 Pauillac, Bordeaux, France
You can also opt to spend a whole day at Chateau Palmer watching wine making. (www.chateau-palmer.com)