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While we Americans are busy with pumpkins and turkeys, the highlight of the fall season across the French countryside is an almost sacred event called the "vendage", the grape harvest. Across the vineyards of Bordeaux, Provence, and the Loire Valley, you see hundreds of stooped figures, picking the ripe grapes that will then become France's fine wines.

Reporter John McWhorter just moved from Alaska to France and it's only fitting that one of his first cross cultural experiences in the move from igloos to chateaux was "the vendage".

La Vendage

by John McWhorter, 11/16/2001

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On my first morning in France, I was having lunch with friends when the subject turned to wine. Francois said they had this family friend with a vineyard in Burgundy, and since I was now in France with no job, if I wanted, they could get me a job picking grapes for a week or so. Maybe it was the two glasses I'd already had, but a few days later I found myself at the train station in Chalon Sur Sonne with a group of young Parisians. Thierry, the boss man, loaded us into a van whose odor told us it normally hauled horses. For 20 minutes, I stared out the back, wondering what I'd done.

We arrived at his chateau and he led us upstairs, pointing out the one "pee pee" room along the way. Up a spiral staircase, we emerged into an old barn loft stuffed with five triple wide plywood bunk beds. We were apparently ALL sleeping here, the twenty of us, both boys and girls. Another group had arrived before us and taken the best spots. I found space in the back, between two young men. No one was speaking English. I was alone in the crowd.

Thierry told us dinner was in 20 minutes. Over macaroni and cheese, he explained that breakfast was at 7, and that we'd work from 8 to noon, have lunch, and be back at work from 1:30 to 5:30. Our salary: 46 francs an hour, a little under seven bucks, less food and housing. By now I'm thinking "company store" like when coal was king.

Morning dawned cloudy and wet. After bread and jam and my choice of instant coffee or cocoa served in bowls - can't they afford mugs? - Thierry showed us the raingear and issued his call to work.

With that, we were off to the vineyard where we were each issued a bucket and a set of clippers. He gave us a ten minute speech on the nuances of harvesting his valuable "grand cru" grapes. Then he ordered one of the French students to translate. What I got was "Those are grapes. These are clippers. When your bucket is full, pass it to the guy with the backpack." Duly educated on this fine art, we were set loose.

We each got our own row and I learned for myself that while the vines grow waist high, the ripe grapes are close to the ground. Fearing the pain of a day spent bending over, I first squatted, then crawled. The night's rains left a sticky mud and before long I was wearing pounds of it. Within ten minutes, the guy with the backpack came round to collect:

After a couple cycles, we'd all resigned to the work ahead and started to get a rhythm. Several French students spoke passable English and most of the crew from Holland spoke it fluently if they wanted to. Among us were a 50ish wine importer, a jewelry designer, a future French lawyer, a South African plumber, a survivor from the Rwandan massacres of 1994, two women from Tunisia, and our porters, four Moroccan guys on the local soccer team who were carrying grapes to build leg strength.

Before I knew it, the sun was shining and there I was smack in the middle of the French countryside, surrounded by stone chateaux and engaged in the centuries old romance of the vendage.

We broke for lunch and feasted on French country cuisine. Roast lamb, potatoes, salad, bread, a cheese course, wine, cake and coffee. Then back into the vineyard where even the mud had gone away. That's where I learned the joy of working across cultures toward a common goal.

Eugene Vriend has been coming to this vineyard for a dozen years now. He says picking grapes offers a good break from city life:

Eugene: "In Holland for instance people work with computers and more office work and they want to clean up their head and do something physical. I think it's a good idea for Europe to change places and share work experiences. That's the future probably."
So for seven days, we shared the work and the bunks and the two bathrooms. We found the swimming pool and took scenic hikes. Morning and afternoons, Thierry rang his bell and we clipped his grapes, sixty tons in all. We got used to the sore muscles and cut fingers, and with all the wine we could drink and nowhere else to go, we spent our nights in merry revelry.
Eugene: "It looks like work and money wise you always say you can make more money somewhere else better, but you have opportunity to work in another country, you have good food and meet nice people from different countries and you have the opportunity because above all, grape picking is coming together."
It all combines into something the French students here call ambience. To my mind, it's the same thing that makes a good wine; a unique mix of ingredients, brought together during one slice of time, to one day be opened and enjoyed with others.

In France, I'm John McWhorter for the Savvy Traveler.

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