I spent most of October in the Loire Valley. This region in central France is known above all for two things: its magnificent castles and its wines. Though I did find some time to explore the former, I had come for the latter: Ever since I had read about how every autumn thousands of French students would descend on the vineyards in France to work hard, party and drink wine, grape picking had been on my ¨101 Things in 1001 Days¨ list and my France adventure would not have been complete without. Not to mention that after six months on the road it was finally time to earn a bit of money towards future travels.
So upon my arrival in Biarritz I turned to pole-emploi.fr, the official website of the French unemployment office. My initial idea was to find a vineyard which would provide food and lodging (nourri & logis). At the end of my research I sent out applications to the few vineyards that did not mention they were not providing food and lodging. It was about three weeks before the advertised beginning of the harvest, and I was sweating heavily as I wrote my short email of motivation in French.
Eric, the technical director of the Château de Minière in Ingrandes-de-Touraine was the only one to reply. He also could not offer me food and lodging. Just a field for my tent. I still confirmed my interest in the position.
Less than two weeks before the beginning of the harvest I received an email with the exact day and time: I should be at the château on Monday, October 6th, at 7:45 am. That date was changed only a few days later. Since the weather was going to take a turn for the worse we were asked to already be in Ingrandes on Friday.
Thursday morning my WorkAway hosts in the Lot Valley gave me a thick blanket, a pair of gumboots as well as a pair of gardening gloves, and I jumped on a train up North. Eric was kind enough to pick me up from the station in Saint Patrice.
The ¨field¨ was actually a small bit of patchy grass by the cellar (chai). The toilet was a Dixi in a corner of the property. There was plenty of running water, however, just cold water. The thought of spending two weeks without a hot shower in my tiny tent was all but appealing. Eric tried to comfort me, announcing the arrival of a couple of Spaniards with a caravan. Maybe I could come to an agreement regarding the shower with them.
I found a small supermarket in the bar-tabac-epicerie-depot de pain right in the center of Ingrandes, about 2 km from the chai. The initial relief of at least having access to fresh bread, milk and cheese soon gave way to a slight panic: the place was to remain shut all of the following week as the owner would go on vacation. I had stacked up on some paté, cans of sweet corn and microwave pasta in the hypermarket. But those supplies would not last longer than a few days. And be terribly boring without bread. Eaten cold. I needed to rapidly become friends with my fellow grape pickers in order to not be cold, hungry and miserable.
My first opportunity at making new friends came when I returned to the chai. Three young women from Britanny were setting up their tiny tent next to their tiny car. We shared an improvised picknick in the grass. They told me about the tiny apartment in Chinon they were going to move to the next day. I did not dare to ask whether I could come.
Though with my new blanket I froze considerably less than before the next morning was as unpleasant as had to be expected of a morning without a hot shower. The Spaniards had not yet arrived.
My camping neighbours took me the few hundred meters to the actual château in their car. We were greeted by a cheery Eric and our colleagues, about a third of them from the area, the others a mix of people who had spent the better part of their summer traveling around France for seasonal work and graduates waiting for their first ¨real¨ job. My youngest colleague, Fanny from Brest, was 19; the oldest, Sylvie, the wife of foreman Gil, in her fifties. Eric had done a great job of picking a diverse team with interesting enough characters to actually have conversations.
After a short car ride we arrived at the first plot. The pickers grabbed each a bucket and a cutter, some had brought their own gardening scissors. The porters strapped the bright yellow plastic panniers to their backs. I was not even able to lift the hottes empty.
I had expected an hour or so of training to learn which grapes to keep and which to toss. Instead Eric had just these few words of advice for us: ¨I want only beautiful grapes. I want no dried or moldy grapes, no leaves, no weeds. Only beautiful grapes.¨
And off we went into the vines.
My partner on the first row was Antoine, a dreamy young man from Rennes. Get down on your knees. Tear leaves. Grab grape. Cut it off the vine. Clean of mouldy and dry grapes. Drop into bucket. Get up. Continue down the row. Every few minutes a porter would come by to let us empty our buckets. Get down on your knees. Tear leaves. Grab grape. Cut it off the vine. Clean of mouldy and dry grapes. Drop into bucket. Get up. Continue down the row.
Half way down the first row foreman Gil dropped by to push us to work faster: apparently everyone else was already finished with their rows. That was of course not completely true, only the Spaniards had finished and now started to work their way towards us. But it scared us enough to add an extra 20% speed. I certainly did not want to be the weakest link in the team.
Down, tear, grab, cut, clean, drop, up, continue, down,…
The increased speed came at the expense of concentration. I stopped clearing the vines of leaves to see where to cut the grapes. I was too quick cutting, my eyes already on the next grape. The result was a nasty gash in my left index finger. I covered it hastily with a paper tissue and continued to not again fall behind the others.
After two hours Gil treated my cut finger. To my relief I was not the only clumsy person. By the end of week one those who had not cut themselves were in the minority and we were comparing our scars.
I was making use of a fifteen minute break. Our boss was sponsoring the coffee, hot chocolate and mini cakes. Then we moved on to another plot. Smiling, the refractometer in his hands, Eric was already awaiting us to point out the rows of vines with grapes sweet enough for his wine.
At 12:30 we broke for lunch. I had left my half baguette and paté at the chai. But so friendly was the atmosphere that foreman Gil took me the few hundred meters there and back in the van before disappearing to enjoy the lunch he and the other handful of permanent staff were being served by chef Muriel.
The seasonal staff got comfy in the sun by the parking lot and the two picknick tables next to the clos. It would be only the next day when rain was taking grip of the vineyard when we discovered the room with the large table, benches along both sides and the two microwaves that was the seasonal staff lunch room.
On the first day we sat outside in the sun. I chatted with Aurelion, the graphic designer from near Colmar and with Antoine, the musician from Britanny. It turned out that he was staying a small gîte about two kilometers from the château.
I tried to be subtle and not sound desperate when I responded to the news: ¨I am looking for somewhere to share. It would mean less rent for you, too. The more, the merrier…¨
Antoine let it pass at first without replying.
I admit that it might have been my sorry remarks about my airy tent, the cold water, the no shower, the impending rain…. But a few minutes later he offered: ¨You can stay in the gîte with me. Si tu veux.¨
I didn’t even ask how much the rent would be.
Lunch break was over at 2 and we went back to the first plot we had been to in the morning. I worked for a while with Alexi, a French guy with dreads down to his butt, who had come with the Spanish from a vine harvest in Bojoulais. He complemented me on my French and my grape cutting skills. He also warned me of the pain that I would feel tomorrow morning and then another day before my body would get accustomed to the countless squats I was performing. Little did he know that I’d also develop a sort of tennis arm, the grape cutting wrist, which meant that even for two weeks after the end of the harvest I could barely cut bread or open a jar of jam.
Then I worked opposite one of the Britanny girls with the tiny tent and the tiny car. When I told her that I had found a house to move to she apologized for not inviting me to the tiny apartment. But I understood.
Finally I worked opposite Antoine again. We were a good team and found out that in stretches with lots of grapes it was most comfortable to sit in a lotus position. But it wasn’t long before Eric caught us and introduced us to ¨the only rule in the vines¨: – funny, as there had also been the rule about what to put into the bucket – no sitting down.
At 5:30 we packed our buckets, scissors and hottes, went back to the château and on to the chai. Eric was inviting us to learn why we were being careful at not having subpar grapes in our buckets. We got to try the bulles, sparkling wines, that the Château de Minière was making as red or rosé. We also tasted le paradis, juice from grapes harvested this morning and only ever so slightly fermented. And when the sun had almost set it was time to go home and at least half a dozen of my new colleagues helped me pack up my tent and belongings so I could move to Antoine’s before we’d all meet again in the morning, at 7:45, by the château.