Working Harvest in Burgundy

Originally published in the Huffington Post as How Harvest in Burgundy is Different.

(Fall 2016) Even with ten years of harvest experience under my belt from stints in Napa, Australia, and my own small vineyard in Sonoma, I was still not prepared for how different harvest time is in Burgundy. While working there this past autumn, I encountered some very unique differences, with Polish pickers, pick-up truck parties, and hovering helicopters, as just a few of the unusual occurrences.

WORKERS HARVESTING GRAPES IN BURGUNDY. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

Since I moved to Burgundy at the beginning of September, it was only a few weeks later that harvest erupted into full swing. Suddenly the vineyards were swarming with grape pickers and the ubiquitous white vans that delivered them to and from the fields. Shops, and even some restaurants, would close at odd hours, as their owners headed off to the vines. Parking became challenging, as everyone competed to find a space in the narrow streets of the villages before heading to the vineyards. But above it all, there was a glorious feeling of excitement, trepidation, and hope, as everyone helped to birth the 2016 vintage.

Experiencing this for the first time, over the course of about three weeks, I noticed nine distinct differences between harvest in Burgundy verses California.

1. They Don’t Pick at Night

In warmer regions of the world, such as Napa/Sonoma where I live, most harvest occurs in the very early hours of the morning. This is because it is cooler then, and the wine grapes can be better preserved, and rushed to the winery for crush without sugars rising and acids falling. Near my house in Sonoma, the crews arrive around 2 in the morning and pick until 7am. Large spotlights are set up in the vineyard so the pickers can see better in the dark. Indeed, once a friend of mine visiting from NY showed up on my doorstep late at night exclaiming that alien spaceships had landed in the field. I had to explain to him that it wasn’t a Martian invasion – just night harvest in California.

In Burgundy, however, where the climate is cooler, harvest occurs during the civilized hours of 8am to 5pm, in general. Workers arrive around 7:30 for a harvest breakfast of coffee with croissants, bread, and jam, and then squeeze into the white vans to be driven to the vineyards.

PINOT NOIR GRAPES IN BURGUNDY READY FOR HARVEST. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

2. They Use a Small Bucket and Pannier, Instead of 40-Pound Lugs

Once in the vineyard, each picker is given a pair of secateurs and a small bucket, and then the supervisor assigns them a specific row to pick. Instructions are provided on only picking healthy bunches, and leaving unripe or rotten bunches on the vine. Once the buckets are full, a “pannier” – usually a strong man; I never saw a woman do this – hoists a large cone-shaped basket on his back and walks down the rows so the pickers can dump their buckets of grapes into his basket. He then takes the full basket to the tractor where, in a move that would cause OSHA inspectors to faint, he climbs a ladder and then leans over to dump the grape bunches into a large plastic bin. People on the tractor sort the bunches again, and throw out any bad ones for additional quality control.

This is quite different from Napa/Sonoma where pickers cut the best bunches and put them in a plastic bin, which when full should not weight more than 40 pounds. The worker then carries the bin to the tractor and dumps into a larger plastic container.

PANNIER DUMPING GRAPES IN BIN ON TRACTOR. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

3. Majority of Pickers are from Poland

Though it is not legal in Burgundy to volunteer to work harvest, as a researcher I was allowed to “assist” with harvest at a small domain for two half days. Whereas in America, the most highly skilled pickers are often the migrant workforces from Mexico, in Burgundy, the best pickers are the migrant workforces from Poland.

When I arrived at my appointed domain at 7:30 in the morning, I was introduced to the other 16 workers. Twelve were from Poland, two were from France, one was a visiting winemaker from Argentina, and another person was from the UK. I was the only American.

Once we arrived in the vineyard and I was given my assigned row, I was dismayed to see how quickly I feel behind the others. To my surprise, the fastest and best picker was a 72 year old woman from Poland who had been working the Burgundy harvest for 35 years. She had sparkling blue eyes, fuzzy blond hair, and a huge smile in a suntanned face filled with appealing wrinkles. Though she didn’t speak any English, she exuded happiness and energy. I immediately felt drawn to her warmth, and so did everyone else, who appeared to know her well.

All around me, people chattered in Polish, while I concentrated on trying to find grape bunches in a village level pinot noir vineyard that had been decimated by the frost. I was amazed at how small the crop was.

THE FASTEST AND BEST GRAPE PICKER – AGED 72. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

4. Wine and Brie Break at 9:30

After picking for an hour and a half, a break was called and everyone crowded around the tractor with its plastic bins brimming with grapes. To my utter surprise, unlabeled bottles of pinot noir wine from the domain were opened and everyone passed the bottles around. No cups were in sight, and everyone was drinking directly from the bottle.

When it finally reached me, I saw many eyes upon me. Would I drink from the bottle or not? Throwing caution to the wind, and remembering that alcohol killed most germs, I hosted the bottle to my lips and took a big swig of pinot noir at 9:30 in the morning. After all, “when in Burgundy, enjoy Burgundy!”

Then a large bag of sliced French baguettes with thick slices of brie was passed around. Everyone munched on these, swigging more wine to wash it down. Then after 15 minutes, it was back to the vineyard. The only issue for me is there was no bathroom break, and I didn’t see the portable outhouses that are set up for harvest in the vineyards of California. Reminder to self – do not drink so much coffee before harvest in Burgundy.

MORNING WINE BREAK DURING HARVEST. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

5. Backbreaking and Knee Needling Work

The reason I only worked two half days harvesting in Burgundy (even though I was invited to work two whole days) was because by noon I could barely stand up straight or walk. Whereas in California our vines are pruned so the grape bunches are waist level or higher, in Burgundy the vines are very small and near the ground. Many of the grape bunches are dangling just above the limestone studded earth.

There are only two options to pick – either bend over and strain your back, or squat down to the ground until your knees and thighs are screaming. I vacillated back and forth between these two methods, but could only last until noon each day. The following days my muscles were so sore, it was hard to walk without lots of Ibuprofen. So much for my zumba classes and workout at home.

GRAPE BUCKET AND SECATEURS. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

6. Two Hour Lunches and Harvest Dinner Every Night

When talking to the Polish pickers who could speak English, they told me that one of the best aspects of working harvest in Burgundy were the meals. Not only did they receive unlimited free wine to drink, but also they were served 3 meals per day – and the food was good. Huge lunches and dinners, that usually the women of the domain would spend days preparing.

After lunch, which included wine, most workers would take a nap on the lawn, before grabbing their buckets to head back to the vines. That evening, they had another scrumptious dinner to look forward to, and most nights it turned into a small party. Several of the Polish workers told me they considered harvest in Burgundy to be their vacation each year.

7. Housing or Tents Mandatory

Under French law, harvest workers must be provided with housing or a place to pitch their tents. If they chose tents, the domain must also provide showers and toilets. In California, we are starting to make progress on this issue, with some wineries offering harvest housing, but not all. We still have some way to go to catch up with the more hospitable system in France.

When I asked how it worked, I was told that if workers elected to stay in their own tent, they were paid around 11 -12 euros per hour plus meals. If they decided to stay in housing provided by the domain, they were paid around 9-10 euros per hour plus meals, since the house was part of their wages. Though hourly wages for harvest workers in California are usually higher than this, we don’t often provide the housing and meal benefits that France does.

VIEW OF BURGUNDY VINEYARDS FROM HARVEST TENT CAMP SITE. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

8. Helicopter Patrols

Another major difference with harvest in Burgundy is the helicopters that hover over the vineyards counting the number of workers. Their purpose is to insure that no one is hiring illegal workers, or using more workers than approved. The opportunity to work harvest is a special one, and requires much paperwork to be completed by the domain. If a winery is caught using the wrong number of workers, they may be fined.

9. Parties, Music and Celebration

Though we usually have big harvest parties in California at each winery when harvest is complete, it seems that there are parties every evening during harvest in Burgundy. It is possible that this is due to the wonderful dinners and wine that are provided each night after picking

However, even more amazing for me to see and hear were the pick-up truck parties and bands that wove through the tiny village roads with horns honking and workers cheering when harvest was complete. I ended up behind more than one truck complete with a piano, accordion, and workers singing with loud abandon. It was impossible not to smile and feel the sheer joy and exuberance that pervaded the air as everyone celebrated the birth of a new wine vintage in Burgundy.

WINES FROM BURGUNDY. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

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