Although the actual product might seem delicate, elegant and sweet, behind the scenes, the process of picking and packing grapes for wine is bitter, sweaty, rigorous and almost unfathomable–kind of like the day after drinking it.
Filled with Châteaus of vineyards, wine in France has become practically dirt-cheap on a national level. Internationally, since it’s France’s number 1 export, picking grapes–similar to picking olives in the Mediterranean, argon oil in the Middle East or marijuana in the good ol’ US of A–is just another culturally grandiose work-trade that is always high in demand.
Visions of a Vineyard
The grape picking season in France is every September to mid November. Most Châteaux give you room and board, along with brunches, if you plan ahead and set up a certain time frame; almost like WOOFING, a site that connects people to work-experience in exchange for room and board), but the only difference is you actually get paid.
Sites like Anefa.org and Pole-Emploi.fr (both French) constantly post listings for vineyard work throughout the summer and fall seasons; the application process is meticulous depending on the château, so it is strongly advised to send it in at least three to six months prior to the work season, especially if there is a winery of particular interest.
In any case it is safe to say that if there’s no preference and working on any vineyard alone is enough to tickle your fancy, then there is a 95 percent chance of definitely finding work, even without an application.
Based upon one’s credibility, wineries offer abundant types of work that range from picking grapes to carrying loads of them, driving trucks, assembly line processes, machinery, and even fermentation. If you have no experience whatsoever—don’t worry; they have no problem teaching you the basics, which popularly tends to be “cutting ” and or “picking ” grapes.
While brochures of wine tours and tastings may attract tourists from all ends of the earth, squeezing out up to a 100 dollars from them to attain “le vendange experience,” others, known as the vendangeurs* or vendangeuse’* are doing the complete opposite, earning in turn up to a 100 dollars or more for working the fields, watching it all come together where the true experience lies.
Vendangers* are people who work on vineyards, there is no exact translation in English since this word is ONLY for people who “pick” grapes for WINE. “Picker” would be the literal translation, but in English you can technically “pick” any fruit.
Every morning for a period of two to three months vendangers grab their plastic gloves, baskets, and hedge cutters, form groups of two with one person on either side of the grape trees, which symmetrically and beautifully go down in rows for miles and miles, and delicately cut each grape head.
Vendangeurs is the name for people who work on vineyards, there is no exact translation in English since this word ONLY defines people who “pick” grapes for WINE. “Picker” would be the literal translation, but in English you can technically “pick” any fruit.
Not So Magical
The first bittersweet notion of the vineyard dreamscape are the mosquitoes, so it’s best to layer clothes, considering work starts between 6:30 – 7:00 a.m. Bosses may be nice enough to bring repellent, but near fruit, swamps, and on top of all that still in the misty dew of daybreak, the mosquitoes are ruthless.
Grape heads can turn out be half rotted, so it’s important to intently scrape out the dead parts and salvage what’s left, though a few vines can go untouched for being too immature.
After collecting as many grapes into personal baskets, a select few for the day will come around with their huge backpack baskets to dump them into trucks full of ice. The trucks of ice are used to keep the grapes at a comfortable level under the morning and midday sun, but again, this is all depending on personal experience and each vineyard’s work tactics.
Along the way it’s inevitable to run into mounds of snails (tiny ones), spiders (lots of daddy long legs) and any bug imaginable; find them crawling up your arms, heads, hair.
The actual snipping is simple, but the labor is torturous; constantly bending down and over, getting on your knees, sometimes sitting, only to get back up within 10 minutes to do it all over again, over and over, on the next vine, for hours on end.
Vineyards may fit a 15-minute salvation coffee break in, and then send workers back into the fields until mid-afternoon. Any time after 1 p.m. is considered too hot (temperature wise) to “cut” grapes, according to most vineyards. Despite the fact actual work days may be short, the after effects on the body last longer, but don’t forget that it all takes place in the middle of wine making history, so it’s well worth the pain and passion.
Less strenuous work involves assembly line “picking.” It doesn’t entail bending or breaking anyone’s back, but rather—fingers.
Grapes stroll on by a conveyer-belt type of line while workers pick out all the leaves, bugs, lizards, snails, and any excess junk that gets stuck in the machines after selection; another possible little extra work may mean collecting bigger snails into a separate bucket for the Château’s restaurant use (poor snails, it’s the circle of life I guess).
Despite the labor, the hourly pay rate for working on a vineyard is substantially higher than the minimum wage in all 50 American states. At a standard vineyard the pay is 8.00 – 10.00 euros an hour, which is 11.00 – 12.00 USD. Prestigious vineyards, such as the Rothschild Estates, pay 11.00 – 13.00 Euros an hour, at least 13.00 – 16.00 USD.
Select few vineyards have made their own rules by paying in respects to weight; for instance, 12 – 18 cents of a euro per kilo which, in essence, induces more incentive by allowing experienced vendangers to produce profits based upon their work ethic and skill at speedy picking.
Either way, can’t really beat any of it when you’re also being paid in beautiful luxurious, lush landscapes and learning a new language all at the same time.
~ FIN ~
Interested? Want to be come a Vendanger?
Some French Areas To Consider:
Loire Valley, Côtes du Rhone, Cognac, Champagne, and Dijon are just a few cities within France that are always in demand for pickers of grapes, mustard seeds, apples, kiwis, peaches, and just about any French farm product within the country year round. You will find these cities by first looking up the regions they pertain to, such as Burgundy, Brittany, PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur), Aquitaine, etc.
** If you’d like to support my vendange/vineyard experience, look for a bottle of Taillian Médoc’s 2015 Sauvignon Blanc -La Dame Blanche (it usually takes two years since the grapes are first picked); we picked in 2013.**
The exacts months of WINE season (September-November) also happens to be the same as SURF season, so if you tend to be one of those, or would like to try it out, the southern west coast of the France is a hidden gem for many surfers and tourists alike, check out: “Surfing Southern France”.