This October I got the opportunity to work for almost two weeks picking grapes in the stunning Loire Valley in Central France. It’s an experience I can recommend to anyone (fit enough to do a few dozen squats a day and walking for about 5 km). Here is a more formal compilation of things I have learnt going through the process.
You should always strive to be able to communicate some basic information in the language of a country you are seeking to visit. You will notice that – in France maybe even more so – people are much nicer to you when you at least try. And looking to work in agriculture you have to be really lucky to find a boss willing to speak in any other language than the local lingo with you.
There are certainly exceptions to the rule, but remember:
Even if the owner of the vineyard is foreign – in my case a multilingual Belgian – the foreman and staff responsible for the harvest are most likely local, your colleagues will be predominantly communicating in French (or another language that is not English).
Orders will be given in French.
So make an effort and at least brush up on your basic skills. To help you with some of the vineyard vocabulary I am using some common ones below.
Click here to read about five tools I used to learn French.
While machine harvesting is more and more common in vineyards around the world hand picking is still needed for organic and high quality wines as well as in areas where the plots are steep.
Harvesting season lasts from 3 days to 3 weeks, and while inexperienced staff is usually welcome, it is preferred that you stay the whole time. Seasonal work is sometimes unpredictable, the weather might make an earlier start at short notice necessary or force you to break for days due to rain.
You will only get paid for the hours you actually work. The customary two-hour French lunch break and rain breaks are unpaid. Organic wines, e.g. cannot be harvested in heavy rain. Take my 2014 harvesting experience: in eleven working days I racked up only 61 working hours. Especially if you have to pay for accommodation the venture might become unviable in unfavorable weather conditions.
There are three types of seasonal jobs in vendange: picking (coupeur or vendangeur / vendangeuse), collecting (hotteur), sorting (triage). All three are physically demanding, the first three days being the hardest (a painkiller like paracetamol or aspirin helps to mask the muscle ache – there is nothing else you can do if you want to continue earning money).
Pickers have to constantly bending down, getting down on their knees or into a squat, sitting is frowned upon. Scissors are provided. Though some bring their own gardening cutters. I find them too clunky. And finally, don’t worry: almost everyone cuts themselves at some point within the harvest.
Collectors carry the ca. 20 kg basket (hotte) plus ca. 30 kg of grapes while walking along the vines from one picker to the next and back to the trailer (benne). Even with all the cushioning provided that’s hard work and almost all collectors will stumble at some point.
Sorting is especially important in machine harvesting as the machine can’t distinguish between good and bad grapes. It is either done before grapes go into the trailer or – more commonly – in the chai (storehouse) to pick out unripe, moldy grapes and snails etc. before putting the wine in the tank. You will work at a fast pace and need good hand / eye coordination. Because it is such a vital part of the process sorters are barely ever hired from the outside.
Come the season, many vineyards will just enlist all existing staff plus the extended family for the harvest and therefore need no external help, even if they are harvesting by hand. However, since there are about 85,000 winegrowers in France there are still quite a few employment opportunities.
The wine harvest takes place from September to December – depending on the region, the weather in a particular year and the variety of grapes harvested. I started my search in early September less than a month before the beginning of the harvest in Loire Valley, heard back within a week and knew I had the job about one and a half weeks before the vendange started.
Another good web source to find jobs in grape picking is anefa-emploi.org, run by the Association Nationale pour l’Emploi et la Formation en Agriculture.
If you prefer to focus on organic vineyards you may have to put in a little more effort. You will have to source contact details for organic vineyards from the Agence Bio (for a full list of French actors in organic agriculture: annuaire.agencebio.org) or local associations and contact them individually for openings.
If earning money is secondary you may want to think about WWOOFing, WorkAway.info or HelpEx. Hosts offer food and lodging in exchange for a few hours of work every day. I have found several vineyards on these websites.
Finally you can always try to pop up in a region and ask around at the vineyards. We had some openings in our troupe due to people cancelling at short notice and people calling in sick after a few days.
Before even starting the job you will need to provide your social insurance number and a copy of your ID or passport. Few of the larger estates will risk paying you on the black. So you’ll also need a bank account to get paid. And yes, taxes and social insurance will be deducted from your 9,53 Euro/hour.
It is highly likely that at some point throughout the harvest there might be rain. In the morning there is a lot of dew in and around the vines. So you will get wet – bring rainproof clothing (gum boots) and wear layers as it might get hot around midday. Don’t forget your sunscreen.
(Gardening) gloves are sometimes a hindrance when cleaning the grapes. They get wet in the morning dew and during rain showers. However, when harvesting red grapes you will appreciate not having your fingers and nails stained for weeks to come. They also provide a little bit of protection against cutting yourself.
To protect your knees bring a set of workers’ knee pads.
When packing your camping gear remember that nights get cold and while there might be a microwave available for lunch staying on a field means spending much of your r’n’r time in your tent (or mobile home).
First the bad news: vineyards hardly ever provide food and lodging (nourriture & logis). Smaller vineyards might provide breakfast / lunch but are less likely to need external staff (see above “The job”).
I found several factors that have led to the vineyards keeping perks for seasonal staff to a minimum: The minimum wage in France stands at 9,53 Euro/hour, one of the world’s highest. In addition the majority of people in seasonal work are living within a 25km radius of their workplace or are so-called ¨travellers¨, families or groups of workers that travel with their mobile homes from job to job and are therefore not in need of accommodation; a field and running water will do for them. Some vineyards are even specifically looking for experienced equipes, teams of such travelling workers. Finally vineyards producing for the mass market are more and more harvesting with machines rather than by hand. Therefore the demand for workers has gone down.
If you don’t have a mobile home or a tent, gîtes are a viable alternative. The vineyards are usually in areas that draw a lot of tourists during the summer months. Come September most of these holiday homes lay idle. See if you can team up with other harvesters and get a good deal. But expect to pay around 50 Euros plus per week.
If you have a car you could also try to find a campsite renting mobile homes. Most of them are closed from October to April. But you just might be lucky.
Finally, couchsurfing or asking the local members of your equipe for a spare room is always an option.
If you don’t have a car getting your food supplies might be a stretch. You are quite likely to find a bakery (boulangerie) or even a small supermarket (epicerie) in the next village. That’s a good start. However, within a 25km radius there should also be a large supermarket. Eating out is expensive for seasonal workers (10+ Euros for a menu). If there is a restaurant at all.
Usually vineyards will supply drinking water (from their own source).
Most days will start between 7.30 and 8.30. There is a coffee break at around eleven and lunch between 12 and 2. But again: this is seasonal work; nothing is guaranteed.
The most important part in all of this, however, is to enjoy your time in the vineyard. Sing with your colleagues. Get to know people and their stories. Nip a few sugary grapes straight from the vine. Sample great wines.