Summer seems to only have just started and already I find my thoughts fast forwarding to the fall. I love every minute of the summer, with its long lazy days and cloudless blue skies, but since I started working in the vines, my summer vacations have become more distracted by the fruit-ripening months to come. The hot days of summer inevitably inspire winemakers to tackle the practicalities of the harvest. Here in wine country, the build up to the harvest comes with a contagious energy. It’s not just the time when winemakers collect the fruit of their hard work throughout the year, but it’s also a festive time, with teams of workers spending their days in the vines. Unlike most of the work done throughout the year – pruning, treating, working the land, etc which is solitary and requires few – the harvest requires teams of workers coming together.
Sumer is laziness and relaxation, but the harvest is action; it’s the difference between being a tourist outside and working outside, and by the time summer winds down, the days get shorter, and the temperatures start to drop, I’m ready to get my hands dirty. Grape harvests happen at different times depending on the region, with start dates varying by as much as a week in regions that are only a few kilometers apart. The warm weather of Southern France, including the Languedoc and Rousillon regions, result in some of the first grape harvests in the country, sometimes as early as mid-August. In the Loire Valley, the temperate climate means that the harvest varies widely and can take place anytime from early September to the onset of October.
As our neighbors to the South start the hard work of the harvest, we start to get anxious for our turn. Winemakers will taste their grapes daily, assessing the ripeness and taste of grapes for their various varietals, waiting for the perfect time to pick. Harvesters from near and abroad have their boots and backpacks ready, on standby until they get the green light to convene in the vineyard and begin the back-breaking work of picking grapes.
Grape picking is a tedious job that leaves your body contorting into unnatural shapes as you try to find new ways to bend once your knees and back start revolting against the task. But despite the physical pain and monotony, grape picking is rewarding. Upon arrival at each new vine, a sort of treasure hunt begins as you look for bunches of grapes and then inspect them closely for punctured or rotting grapes, which must immediately be removed from the bunch before adding it to your bucket. This is done for every grapevine as you push yourself up from the ground, swing your heavier-and-heavier bucket to the next vine, and slowly resume the squat position that will only start to feel okay after three or four days.
But in between all this, community is created. Conversations start up between harvesters as they go two-by-two, one on each side of the row of vines, picking grapes and getting to know each other. Morale is restored after two hours of morning grape picking when the pause arrives – this is the one time of the year when drinking a glass of red wine along with a healthy slice of pâté is allowed and appropriate at 10 o’clock in the morning. Harvesters stretch and enjoy being upright for just enough minutes to feel ready to attack the rest of the morning’s work. Lunchtime allows the luxury of sitting down to eat and also announces the halfway mark of the day. There’s a feeling of accomplishment, which is paired with more wine, which is, of course, why we’re here: for the love of wine.
There will be more work when the afternoon’s harvest is done: loading the grapes into the fermentation tanks; stomping them down with bare feet, squishing the warm afternoon pickings and digging into the chilly grapes of the morning’s hunt. And then there’s the constant cleaning; washing down crates, boots, tools, glasses, and lunch plates for the evening meal. By this time, the stars start to fill the sky – a magical sight for harvesters coming from the city – and the smell of freshly pressed grapes – Gamay, Sauvignon, Cabernet – crystalize a moment that is so full and so fleeting, a matter of days when you get to live a crucial part of the story of that year’s wine.