France: Helping with the Grape Harvest

Immature grapes growing in the France's Loire Valley. Read about Vineyard jobs in France in this story. Max Hartshorne photo.
Immature grapes growing in the France's Loire Valley. Read about Vineyard jobs in France in this story. Max Hartshorne photo.

Grape picking in France: Mosquitoes, Spiders and oh yes, free wine

By Joanna Gonzalez

Working a grape picking job in France. Here, snipping the fruit in Bordeaux. Joanna Gonzalez photos.
Working a grape-picking job in France. Here, snipping the fruit in Bordeaux. Joanna Gonzalez photos.

gonomad122214banner2Although 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 with vineyards, wine in France has become practically dirt-cheap on a national level. Internationally, since it is 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.

Grape Picking Jobs

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 WWOOFING (a site that connects people to work-experience in exchange for room and board), but the only difference is you actually get paid.

Some of the stoniest soils produce the best wines in France.
Some of the stoniest soils produce the best wines in France.

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.

“Le Vendange”

Joanna with the truck of grapes at Chateau Taillan in Medoc, France.
Joanna with the truck of grapes at Chateau Taillan in Medoc, France.

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.

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.

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A pile of vine cuttings at a vineyard in France's Loire Valley.
A pile of vine cuttings at a vineyard in France's Loire Valley.

Vineyard Jobs Tips

The first bittersweet notion of the vineyard dreamscape is 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.

A spider in the vines.
A spider in the vines.

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.

Too Hot after 1 pm

Vineyards may fit a 15-minute salvation coffee break in, and then send workers back into the fields until mid-afternoon. Anytime 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 winemaking history, so it’s well worth the pain and passion.

A pickers basket of grapes.
A pickers basket of grapes

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 conveyor-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).

Winery Wages

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.

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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 on 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.

The elegant entrance to the chateau in Medoc.
The elegant entrance to the chateau in Medoc.

Bordering Bordeaux

Considered France's wine capital, Bordeaux, the most famously known terrain for wine houses nearly all the “crème de la crème” vineyards of France and perhaps, the world; St. Emilion, Saint-Estéphe, Pomerol, Pauillac, and Moulis-En-Médoc (starting from these names, the other names written alongside it on a bottle of wine become even more intricate depending on the name of the estate or owner of the vineyard/Château).

These are just a few of the 1,000s of wineries within Bordeaux that offer the best benefits and outstanding bonuses, like designated and secured camping grounds, room and board, lunch-ins, bottles of wine to take home, free transportation, goodbye parties, and a whole type of peoplin’, trailerin’, travelin’, transin’ and well, who knows…

What I do know is that certain individuals, mixed ages, and sexes, my grandfather, your cousin, your neighbor, my teacher, professionals, artists, travelers, gypsies, etc. all dedicate their lives to this, faithfully attending each yearly harvest while of course managing their normal “jobs” on the side as well.

Other French Areas to Consider

Loire Valley, Côtes du Rhone, Cognac, Champagne, Burgundy, and Dijon are just a few cities and regions within France that are always looking 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.

Joanna Gonzalez is a recent college graduate with a BA currently freelancing, traveling, writing, as well as translating and interpreting (English, Spanish, French) via the internet. Read her blog, visionsofjoanna.com

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