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Confessions of a Vendange Virgin

Friday 27 June 2003, by Patricia

When you have reached the age of fiftysomething, spent a good part of your year in the south of France and have never picked a grape in anger, you begin to wonder what you have missed. So when Antoine, a local friend with a couple of tiny vineyards, hinted that he could do with some vendangeurs for a day or two’s work - unpaid, but well fed - I found myself volunteering.

Himself was not impressed, but I pointed out reasonably that this was an experience we owed it to ourselves to experience. And anyway, I had volunteered, so that was that. As the day drew near and the September skies grew blacker and the rain fell in torrents day after day, it looked as if we would be off the hook. But the weather changed on the Monday, and on Tuesday Antoine was on the phone. "It’s time to pick the Merlot, he announced. We’ve reached 13.3 degrees (of alcohol content) and now we have to get the crop in - there’s a bonus in it." For him, I might add, not for us, but we had promised.

Wednesday dawned very black
indeed, but that was because we were up and out of bed by 5:30 - an unprecedented hour for us. By the time the sun staggered blearily into the sky it was obvious we were in for a very fine day.

At eight on the dot we were up at the mazet in Antoine’s vineyards. Or rather, we were in sight of the mazet. The already-assembled pickers could see us quite clearly, as we trundled up and down every track in the vicinity, assuring ourselves with diminishing conviction that we’d been here before, lots of times, and surely we knew the way?

Eventually, by a process of elimination, we found the right track, and roared up it to shrieks of derision. The loudest of these came from our next-door neighbours, but then they had a right to jeer. Some months earlier we had all gone to a party at Antoine’s, and they (who had been there before) got lost and we (who hadn’t) didn’t. And did we ridicule them and have a huge laugh at their expense? Well, yes, I’m afraid we did.

We needn’t have worried, though: we were far from the last to arrive. The rest of the merry gang - we were nine in all - straggled in at intervals during the morning. After a day of picking, I understood why they - cannier by far than us innocents - had chosen to start later.

We were assigned our tasks and sent off with secateurs, two to a row to strip each side with maximum efficiency. The grapes hang down in jewelled clusters, deep amethyst and succulent and ready to fall into your bucket at the merest snip. Or that is the theory. The fact is that for every bunch that hangs down like etc etc, there is one that fiercely hugs the vine, the supporting wire and itself and defies you to detach it without a lengthy battle.

Working opposite your other half, I discovered, is the best option. There’s an element of "I’ll reach that one for you" and "Mind your fingers" and "Let me carry that heavy bucket." Working opposite the patron is the worst option. He picks tetchily and fast, leaving you far behind as you struggle with a recalcitrant bunch.

Then it was breakfast time. In our case, alas, not rustic benches and a long table spread with checked cloth under the trees by smiling apple cheeked old ladies. Instead it was a listing picnic table and several rather tatty mats for seating.

But there were croissants and fougasse, cheese and saucisson and paté, tea and coffee, chilled water and fruit juice - even beer and wine for those who could face it at 10 a.m. And the sun smiled down and the breeze cooled us and the view over the valley was glorious and we realised that vendange really is like every cliché you have ever read or seen in a movie.

I have to admit, though, that as the day wore on my mind was less on pastoral idyll than on screaming muscles. Bend, crouch, snip, kneel, bend, snip, lift - the person who invented the expression ’backbreaking’ knew what he was talking about.

But every now and again the evocative shout of "Seau!" rang out, as someone filled their bucket and needed an empty one. Every now and again a clandestine grape found its way into your mouth (don’t tell Antoine). Every now and again you’d look up and catch a rueful grin from your opposite number. It made it all seem worth while.

At last we were done. Twenty three rows and 2.5 tonnes of merlot grapes - not bad for a small band of largely inexperienced pickers. The patron was happy. The cave seemed to be happy. We were happy. It was over.

The traditional end to the vendange, at least chez Antoine, is the grillade. The chef from the local café appears and, over a fire lit in a circle of stones, produces brochettes and baked potatoes, with home made pate to start and home made apple pie to finish. And of course someone has brought along a guitar…

As the wine flows and the stories get taller, you stretch weary limbs and reflect fondly on the hot shower to come and a lie-in tomorrow.

That’s when the truth dawns. You haven’t done the vendange at all. True, your back is broken, your fingers cut to ribbons, the nails stained purple in perpetuity. True, a tolerant friend has allowed you to bumble round his vineyard for a day, and you have hopefully repaid him for the experience by picking a useful amount of grapes. But that’s not the REAL vendange.

The real vendange is done, increasingly these days, by machine, or if by hand then by gangs of hardy annuals who arrive for the season and pick doggedly day after day. The men and women who answer ads like the one in our local bar: "Grape pickers needed at Roquessels. Three weeks’ work". Three weeks? I couldn’t manage three days.

But next year? Well maybe, just maybe…

Copyright © Patricia Feinberg 2002

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