Feature

Working the harvest at a French vineyard

"There exists a timeless tradition of volunteer grape-harvesting — as ancient, perhaps, as wine itself"

Volunteers harvesting grapes at Domaine Rouge-Bleu.

Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is French vineyards.

Courtesy image

"There exists a timeless tradition of volunteer grape-harvesting — as ancient, perhaps, as wine itself," said Ann Mah at The New York Times. Even today, many small winemakers in France rely on unpaid help during les vendanges — the harvest days of late summer. Earlier this year, I emailed three such wineries, offering to pitch in with the hand picking, and all three extended invitations. In the end, I chose the type of wine I like best, and wound up at AR Lenoble, a family-run vineyard in Damery, Champagne. I worked long, hard hours for my meals and earned no pay. But it was also a perfect wine enthusiast's vacation. "The camaraderie, breathtaking vineyard views, and rare glimpses of French culture can almost make the backaches disappear. The free-flowing Champagne doesn't hurt, either."

Grasping one-handed pruning clippers, I knelt beside a tangled vine, parting leaves "crisp as newspaper." The challenge, I learned, was finding the right stem to snip to make a grape bunch fall heavily into my outstretched hand. And then to do it again and again, because the rows of vines stretched "as far as I could see, lushly verdant, laden with fruit." All volunteers gathered for lunch, a four-course meal served at a long kitchen table, and then we were back at it. Even my Spartan dormitory room looked enticing by quitting time, and the next morning came early, "heralded first by church bells and then by the insistent thwack of the pressoirs, or grape presses."

Before arriving, I had wondered: "Could long days of physical labor feel at all relaxing?" I got my answer during my last afternoon in the vineyard, when the rain clouds parted and the "sudden, hothouse warmth" inspired us to peel off the raincoats we'd worn for days. As I worked, my hands stained dark with tannins, I fell into "an almost meditative state," admiring "the bright flash of a ladybug moving across a green leaf," the soft violet of the clustered grapes, and "the faint striated pattern of vineyard rows running toward the village below."

Read more at The New York Times, or volunteer through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

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