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Monday, 01 September 2014

Bumming Through the Wine Fields of Bordeaux

Written by Joanna Gonzalez
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Although the actual product might seem delicate, elegant and sweet, behind the scenes, the process of it sure is bitter, sweaty, rigorous and almost unfathomable–kind of like the day after drinking it.

Filled with Châteaux and vineyards surrounding the city’s borders, wine has become dirt cheap in Bordeaux; since it’s one of France’s number 1 exports, picking grapes–similar to picking olives in the Mediterranean, argon oil in the Middle East or marijuana in the good ol’ US of A–was just another culturally grandiose idea for me.

 

Visions of a Vineyard

The current love of my life confirmed the idea after having heard whispers of “farming” and “picking” during my travels through Spain.

He needed to make extra cash-money to come back home with me to America, and the best option was working on vineyard. I was all for it, excited even, but he constantly reassured me it wasn’t going to be all flowers and chocolate.

At the time we were residing in Toulouse (southern France), 3 – 4 hours away from Bordeaux on the train (SNCF- sncf.com)

All of August and September we looked up a million vineyards, sent emails, made phone calls, got into fights, and stressed ourselves out since the thought of him not returning to New York with me killed me…

The wine season in France is mid-September to early November. Most Châteaux give you room and board (with food) if you plan ahead and set up a certain time spam, sort of like WWOOFING but not, because you actually get paid.

No vineyard EVER confirmed any work with us from our comfortable abode in Toulouse, and work in Toulouse wasn’t even an option–there just wasn’t any. Another discouraging factor was that I didn’t have European papers or a visa (illegal in Europe for over a year now).

 

Bordering Bordeaux

We went to Bordeaux with nothing but a tent, clothes, and SOME money–that was about it. We had no clue about Bordeaux, none of us had ever been there before, but what we DID know was that we were going to find a vineyard, knock right on their front door and beg for work.

The minute we got off the train we went straight to a tourist office near the station and got a brochure of every single vineyard located in the region, the funny thing was that the pamphlet was designed for tourists who wanted to book wine tours and tastings, not brutal work.

Trying to soak in the city, we walked over to the Gironde river (which leads out to the Atlantic) located in the city center, laid on the grass and started calling; to our surprise a lot of the listings weren’t the same as we found over the Internet.

Literally within an hour of being in Bordeaux a vineyard (Château du Taillan Médoc) gave us the “OK” and told us to show up the following morning at the break of dawn (6:45 am).


 

Finding Shelter

Since we hadn’t meticulously applied the correct way, which is 6 months in advanced for a proper vineyard stay, we were forced to become “one with the forest.”

We made our way to Médoc* that same night to set up camp with not even a picture in mind, no Google maps, or anything of the sort.

After asking the first two people we saw at an “epicerie” (French bodega) about the area, they decided to drop us off in their white, kidnap-looking van at the vineyard itself.

From there we managed to find a desolate piece of farmland close by which we hoped didn’t belong to anyone (although I’m sure it did). With no flashlight, cellphone, and you can forget about a street light–merely the moon’s light, we pitched the tent.

We slept in complete darkness, woke up to darkness, and made our way to our first day on the job.

 

Chateau Taillan Médoc

Looking for the main entrance we crossed a man on a bike doing the same, together we walked all the way beyond the Château and arrived at a make-shift, shanty-shack of a front desk and introduced ourselves.

I wasn’t prepared at all, nor wearing any proper attire, but DID have my passport (most important tangible item in this world, for me at least); with that said, they took me right in understanding that I was there for serious work (I’m sure some of their employees flunked out since tends to happen often with this kind of work)… I was the only foreigner, let alone American.

After “sign in” we all got in cars and drove to the actual vineyards. Kind French natives offered us rides, and it differed with each work day. Once we got there I stepped out of the car, took a deep breath of fresh air, and saw this: 

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Not So Magical

The first terror of the dream were the mosquitoes. Luckily I was wearing leggings, but they managed to get through those. We were forced to enclose our faces and heads in our hoods and sweatshirts. Our bosses were nice enough to bring repellent, but it didn’t matter. Near sweet fruit, swamps, and on top of all that still in the misty dew of daybreak, the mosquitoes were ruthless…

 

 

“Le Vendange”

Every morning we grabbed our plastic gloves, baskets, and hedge cutters. We formed groups of two, 1 person on either side of the grape trees (which went down in rows for miles and miles) and delicately cut each grape head.

At times some of the heads were half rotted, so would we’d intently and hectically scrape out the dead parts trying to salvage what was left. A lot of trees were left untouched for being too immature, and since white grapes are more fragile our team focused on those while the red grapes had machines doing all the work.

After collecting as many grapes as we could into our personal baskets, a select few for the day would come around with their huge back-pack baskets and collect our grapes to then empty them into trucks full of ice.

Truck%20of%20Grapes

Only “men” were allowed to do the second job since it was real strenuous on one’s back (I know this because I made an effort, but they wouldn’t allow it).

Along the way we’d run into mounds of snails (tiny ones), spiders (lots of daddy long legs), and any bug imaginable; we’d find them crawling up our arms, heads, hair.

At times in turn I’d accidentally snip off one of their legs during the process. It was best to just NOT think and work, but when you work, especially in this fashion, all one can do is think, so for a few moments I’d sometimes freak-out for 5 minutes, shake, wiggle and dance it off.

 

A charm of nature I almost head-on collided into:

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“Wasp Spider” aka black and yellow black and yellow


 

The actual snipping was simple, but the labor was torturous; we were constantly bending down and over, getting on our 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.

Cutting Grapes

I would look out down the row and imagine the space between us and the last vine getting smaller, and although at times it felt like we were moving as fast as the speed of light, we never seemed to be getting any closer–in fact it felt like we weren’t moving at all.

When we did reach the end of the row, there was no relief because it only meant we had to start back over again on the next one.

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At around 10:30 am we would get a 15 minute coffee break and then head back to work until 12:30 pm (any time after that is considered too hot {temperature wise} to “cut” grapes, according to most vineyards).

It wasn’t until the way out that we were actually able take in the Château for all its historical worth and beauty under the midday sun.

Despite the fact our actual work days were really short, the after effects on our bodies lasted much longer.

 

Safer Shelter

After our first day the same man we encountered on the bike immediately befriended us; we innocently divulged ourselves to him and explained why we were there for work.

Eventually, he invited us to camp out in his back yard. It seemed like a safer idea so we took the offer. He brought us to his house, showed us where we could set up camp, gave us an extension cord, a portable gas stove, water, and pampered us a little bit.

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He even let us use his shower and gave us coffee every morning before going to work. On our 2nd to last day he invited us to his family BBQ. There was a time he even let us camp in his  garage after a huge storm; granted all of our belongings were soaked, we slept dry. It was more than what we could ask for.

And within 5 days, we packed our bags and headed for our next vineyard which of course we had no idea where it would be.

 

Chateau Maucaillou

Some traveling friends from Granada (Spain) mentioned they were also working on vineyards near Paulliac* (Bordeaux); we scored a vineyard in the same general direction a train stop away from them.

As I didn’t have papers or medical insurance, the owner stiffly said no and I wasn’t granted any work for this time around. I wasn’t too “bummed” about it since Château Maucaillou’s work was drastically different than Taillan’s. Instead it entailed a course the grapes go through after a “machine” picks them.

It was more of a selection process that I intently watched. No bending or breaking one’s back, but rather–fingers. As the grapes strolled by on a sort of assembly line workers picked out all the leaves, bugs, lizards, snails and any excess junk that got stuck inside the machines.

They even collected giant snails in a separate bucket for the Château’s restaurant.

 

2nd Shelter

And thankfully, one of Maicaillou’s former employees and grand friend ALSO offered us his backyard.

He was a French man of Moroccan descent who too loved his coffee, feeding me a cup every hour or so of the day with delicacies (apple and almond tart pastries). One night he even invited us for Tajine (National Moroccan dish), which was to die for.

Apparently we were not the only ones sharing the backyard, another traveler in his Scooby Doo-like mystery van was posted up too.

With a lot of free time, I took the liberty of spreading my travels by visiting friends in Paulliac* and around Bordeaux.


 

Neighboring Vineyards

I met all sorts of “vendangeurs*,” mixed ages and sexes, my grandfather, your cousin, your neighbor, my teacher, professionals, artists, travelers, gypsies…etc.

Other elite vineyards offered outstanding bonuses, like designated and secured camping grounds, room and board, lunch-ins, bottles of wine to take home, free transportation, good-bye parties, and even higher pay.

I earned 8 Euros an hour for my “vendange” (almost 11 USD), these other vineyards were paying 11 Euros/hr (15 USD).

Rothschild’s vineyards (part of visiumu pristine) and other areas of Bordeaux, like St. Emilion, are two esteemed wineries that offer the best benefits for working on their vineyards.

I found impressive grounds all along the area; a whole type of peoplin’, trailerin’, travelin’, transin’ and well, who knows…

What I do know is that certain people dedicate their lives to this, faithfully attending each yearly harvest (while of course managing their normal “jobs” on the side as well).

We lasted two weeks, but the norm is to stay the entire 2-3 months, either way, people come and goes as they please. 

But over all of it, what astonished me the most while out there breaking my back was that there were other American tourists a few vines behind me paying up to 100 dollars to cut a few measly grapes to attain le “experience”; but I tell you they have no idea of the real, behind the scenes process until they try THIS.

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Vendangers*are people who work on vineyards, there is no exact translation in English since this word is ONLY for people who “pick” grapes for WINE. “Picker” would be the literal translation, but in English you can technically “pick” any fruit.

Médoc* is a certain terrain area within the region Aquitaine (Bordeaux is located here) where specific grapes called “Médoc” are grown. Starting from this name (Médoc), the other names written along-side it on a bottle of wine become even more intricate depending on the name of the estate or owner of the vineyard/Château. Within the Médoc area there are many, many other vineyards.

Paulliac* is another terrain area located on the shore (Atlantic) where many ritzier vineyards can be found. Some bottles of wine will also contain this name and the name of the owner of a Château (one of Rothschild’s estates is located in this area [Château Lafite]).

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Interested? Want to become a Vendanger?

Some French Areas to Consider:

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

 

A good site I used before finding my way to Bordeaux was:

http://anefa.org/saisonniers (all listings are in French, but self-evident).

 

** If you’d like to support my vendange/vineyard experience, look for a bottle of:

 Taillian Médoc’s 2015 Sauvignon Blanc - La Dame Blanche 

It usually takes two years since the grapes are first picked; we picked in 2013.**

 

NOTE:

The same exacts month of WINE season (September-November) also happens to be the same as SURF season, so if you tend to be one of those, or would like to try it out, the southern west coast of France is a hidden gem for many surfers and tourists alike, check out this blog about: “Surfing Southern France”.

 

© Joanna Gonzalez

Last modified on Saturday, 25 October 2014