As a wine lover with an active imagination, I’d always pictured the French wine harvest as a cross between “Sideways” and “I Love Lucy,” a sun-drenched bacchanal featuring boozy lunches en plein air, rosy-cheeked peasants crushing fruit with their bare feet, and a bit of insouciant grape picking.
But on my first morning of a week spent working in a Champagne vineyard, the clouds hung low and leaden, an ominous dark mass biding its time. I wore rubber boots, bought not 30 minutes earlier, the smallest pair at the garden supply center and still three sizes too big.
I wielded a pair of secateurs (one-handed pruning clippers), their orange handles flashing through dew-drenched vine leaves as I hunted for the correct stem to cut. The foliage rustled, crisp as newspaper, and my sweater cuffs, peeping from beneath the sleeves of a borrowed rain slicker, became itchy shackles of sodden wool.
Finally, my shears snipped the right stem, and a bunch of grapes tumbled into my outstretched hand. As I reached for the next cluster, a gentle patter began to echo through the vineyard; it turned into an urgent beat before I realized what it was: rain. Ahead of me were rows of vines stretched as far as I could see, lushly verdant, laden with fruit.
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I had come to the rolling slopes of Champagne to participate in the age-old tradition of les vendanges, the annual wine harvest that takes place at summer’s end. From grape picking, to pressing, to juice fermentation, the harvest – which lasts from two to three weeks – generates myriad extra tasks, and most wineries rely heavily on temporary labor, both paid and unpaid.
In exchange for long days of toil, they often offer meals, wine and lodging, making this an ideal vacation for the budget traveler. And, as I found when I volunteered last September with AR Lenoble – a family-owned Champagne house in Damery, about 5 miles northwest of Epernay – the camaraderie, breathtaking vineyard views and rare glimpse of French culture can almost make the backaches disappear. The free-flowing Champagne doesn’t hurt, either.
Before the quaffs of Champagne, though, I had to do some legwork. In recent years, more French wineries have begun harvesting by machine, which is cheaper and faster, although it offers inconsistent quality. Winemakers that still harvest by hand – predominantly in the premier regions like Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape – are regulated by rigid French labor laws, particularly during the harvest season, with fines levied to discourage black market employment. Volunteers fall into a gray area, but some wineries are reluctant to take the risk.
On the other hand, there exists a timeless tradition of volunteer grape harvesting – as ancient, perhaps, as wine itself – necessitated by the sheer volume of urgent activity required to collect ripe cultivated grapes and initiate supervised fermentation. Many properties, especially the small and family-owned, still welcome volunteers in exchange for food and lodging, but they follow a key principle: discretion.
“Volunteer help is clearly the way it’s always been done in France,” said Caroline Jones, the winemaker at Domaine Rouge-Bleu, a small Côtes du Rhône winery that she owns with her husband, Thomas Bertrand. “For us, it’s a question of quality. We always want to hand-harvest our grapes, but the cost of a team of pickers is prohibitive for us. By using volunteers, we get a group of people who are excited to be here, and they become personally involved.”
Several months ago, I emailed three small French wineries, offering my (free) services. To my surprise, all of them responded with an invitation – one winery for a day, the other two for the entire harvest.
In the end, I chose the type of wine I like the best. And that is how I found myself picking pinot meunier grapes amid a minor tempest in Champagne.
Earlier that morning, around 8 a.m., I had hitched a ride from the winery to this patch of vines above Damery. As I clambered down from the farm van, Hervé Blondel, one of the vineyard managers, handed me a bucket and a pair of garden shears and set me to work picking fruit without much further advice. The art to harvesting grapes, I soon realized, is to know exactly where to clip so that the bunch falls free.
I spent a lot of time hunting for those elusive key stems, which hide camouflaged in thick clusters of grape leaves, kneeling, stooping and bending my body into regrettable contortions, snipping aimlessly until a cluster dropped into my free hand (or, just as often, onto the ground). The grapes went into a bucket that grew heavy as I crept down the row.
Around me, the other vendangeurs (a family of eight from Nord-Pas-de-Calais) worked in pairs, facing each other from opposite sides of the vine, a vantage point that allowed them to seize every cluster with efficiency. They descended upon the fruit like locusts, the sound of their secateurs as sharp as snapping jaws.
Lenoble’s vineyards are scattered throughout the region in small parcels – a patch of chardonnay here, a swath of pinot noir there, each terroir adding a distinct note to the wine’s character.
The heart of the operation remains the winery, which is tucked into the village of Damery, beside the church and the school. The sprawling 18th-century building – once the family home of Lenoble’s current owners, siblings Anne and Antoine Malassagne – includes offices, a sleek and modern cuverie, which holds the fermentation vats, and a web of clammy cellars where the temperature never rises above 55 degrees.
Upstairs, the rambling, empty rooms became, during the harvest, a dormitory. One section housed four burly young Polish men who had driven from Gdansk to operate the antediluvian grape presses (both they and the family from Nord-Pas-de-Calais were paid for their labor); another, separate area was for me, the only woman.
I had been warned that the lodgings would be spartan. At the end of that first day in the vines, however, even my room’s simple furnishings seemed enticing, the narrow bed and coat rack draped in pools of late-afternoon sunshine. At the opposite end of the empty apartment, a bathroom sported pink tiles dating to about 1963, but I noticed only the hot water in the shower.
Mornings came early, heralded first by the neighboring church’s bells at 6 and then by the insistent thwack of the pressoirs, or grape presses. Their deafening rhythm formed the background noise of my stay, with the old-fashioned machinery operating from dawn to dusk and a current of precious grape juice coursing like a springtime creek.
The Polish team muscled loads of grapes into the three wooden presses and used pitchforks to fluff the crushed fruit between each cycle, a task called the retrousse, which requires brute strength and helps extract as much juice as possible.
One afternoon, José Hernandez, the pressoir manager, showed me how to operate the machines. I ran between them, increasing or decreasing the pressure at the appropriate moment, all while hosing, mopping and sweeping the floors. I discovered that working inside the winery had certain advantages: less kneeling and stooping, less annoyance from rain – and unlimited glasses of fresh grape juice, crisp and bright.
Harvest days were long, but they included an extended break for that venerable French institution: lunch. Every afternoon, we gathered around the long kitchen table, a motley crew of Polish men who spoke no French, Frenchmen who spoke no Polish, and me.
I had dreamed of the slow-simmered dishes I read about in cookbooks like “Recipes From the French Wine Harvest,” but as its author, Rosi Hanson, later told me, “More families, especially wives and daughters, work outside the home now, and they’re not available to do the cooking.” Still, our meals, provided by a local caterer, offered four hearty courses with dishes like grated carrot salad and veal stew, followed by cheese and dessert.
“Winemaking seems a lot like cooking,” I said to Franck Michaud, the head vigneron, or winemaker, the day I assisted him in the cuverie. We had just finished preparing a fermentation solution, adding warm water, yeast, plus a good shot of juice, and allowing the mixture to proof, or foam – just like breadmaking.
Under Michaud’s tutelage, I stirred up a batch of malolactic bacteria, tenderly allowing the frozen sachets to defrost before mixing them with tepid water and packets of powdered nutrients. I learned how to measure the juice’s density using a thermometer and bobbing hydrometer to determine the amount of sugar needed for chaptalization (a process that increases the wine’s final alcohol content).
Before I arrived in Champagne, I had wondered: Could long days of physical labor feel at all relaxing?
The answer, I think, came on my last afternoon of grape harvesting, when the clouds lightened and the sun finally appeared, creating a sudden hothouse warmth. The other vendangeurs and I peeled off our outer layers, draping raincoats and sweaters on trellis posts, lifting our faces to the streaky rays of light that had nourished the very plants surrounding us and encouraged them to bud flower and fruit. My cheeks turned pink, and my hands – which were constantly touching the red grapes – grew black, stained with sticky tannins that would prove impossible to scrub from my fingernails.
As I worked, I fell into an almost meditative state, admiring the bright flash of a ladybug moving across a green leaf, the soft violet of clustered pinot meunier grapes, the faint striated pattern of vineyard rows running toward the village below, the crumble underfoot of the region’s cherished chalky soil. Picking grapes requires no particular skills or training, only a measure of agility. This work was the inverse of my daily deskbound grind: It taxed my body and left my mind free.
“Do you mind if I join you?” It was an older woman, the one the team addressed as “Ma mère.” As we harvested together, we talked about her grandchildren, and, this being France, her favorite things to cook. “Layer a baking dish with sliced potatoes, onions, crème fraîche, some mussels and scallops,” she said. “Put in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. I make it at Christmas. It goes well with Champagne.” We clipped together in silence for a few minutes. “Maybe you will cook it and think of me,” she said.
I never learned her name. But she gave me the best kind of souvenir.
Beyond vineyards, other options in Europe
For the budget traveler, volunteering at a farm or winery can be an ideal vacation, with free meals, wine and lodging exchanged for a few hours (generally four to six) of unpaid labor. But if the vineyards don’t appeal, Europe offers many other volunteer travel experiences, paid or unpaid.
1. Websites like World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (wwoof.net) and Workaway (workaway.info) connect volunteers with agricultural hosts. Current opportunities include working with a rare breed of horses in Greece, creating a garden in the Faeroe Islands or helping on a dairy farm in Ireland. The sites require a small membership fee to search listings. Hosts usually provide room and board in exchange for about five hours of work a day.
2. In Iceland, Seeds (seeds.is) is a nonprofit organization that has hosted more than 8,000 volunteers. Projects change annually, but they have included maintaining hiking paths in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, working in Reykjavik’s Botanical Garden and organizing a cultural festival in the western fjords. Accommodations and food are provided, and the application fee ranges from 200 to 250 euros (about $223 to $280).
3. Fans of medieval architecture can wield axes and dabble in wattle-and-daub plaster at Guédelon (guedelon.fr), a new castle that is being constructed using only the techniques and materials that were available during the Middle Ages. Located in Burgundy, the volunteer project is open approximately from mid-March to early November and welcomes carpenters of any level, from amateur to professional. Room and board are not provided, but the organizers offer suggestions for low-cost meals and accommodation in the area. Applications are available on the website; some French is required.
4. With three field stations in Croatia, the Adriatic Dolphin Project (blue-world.org/en/get-involved) focuses on the research and conservation of large marine vertebrates, including a local population of bottlenose dolphins. Eco-volunteers are welcomed from May to September; they pay about 900 euros for a 12-day session with room and board. There are daily outings on a low-noise sea craft to observe the dolphins and collect data. Other tasks include office work and helping in the marine educational center.
5. Prestigious – and pricey – excursions are available through Earthwatch Institute (earthwatch.org), which pairs volunteers with top scientists and scholars to help work on research projects around the world. Current projects in Europe include digging at an archaeological excavation in Tuscany and tracking beavers along the Rhine in Germany. Programs usually last for a week to 10 days, and prices can range from $2,500 to $3,500 (depending on the length), including room, board and related research costs.