Volunteering for the harvest

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.

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.

There are, I discovered, many small kindnesses in the vineyard. Like the plastic cup of coffee offered to me by the team, a rejuvenating sugary boost against the damp. Or the way a heavy bucket of grapes gets passed over the vines, moving from hand to hand, to save you from lugging it to the wheelbarrow at the end of the row.

Or the thoughtfulness of Blondel, who, when he saw me struggling to tackle an unwieldy thicket of vines, picked up a pair of secateurs and faced me on the other side. “It’s sad to pick grapes alone,” he said. For a few moments, we clipped companionably while chatting about viticulture and the general indolence of French youth (the latter, I suspected, a topic as eternal as the vendange).

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.

Late that night, however, entombed in a deep rural silence, my imagination began to cartwheel. Could my bed, which bore the hallmarks of midcentury hospital furniture, have come from an insane asylum? Had I brushed the key in my door, or did its chain start swinging by itself? Did I have enough courage to walk through the endless dark rooms, with their creaking floorboards and peeling wallpaper, to reach the bathroom?

Outside, the clanging church bells announced every quarter-hour until midnight. I decided to sleep with the lights on.

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.

Given the table’s language barrier, conversation was often hesitant. But some things needed no translation — like the day I heated a tray of couscous in the oven and everything burst into flames. Smoke billowed, and everyone ran to the kitchen, panicked. I quickly doused the fire with a glass of water, and Antoine, the winery owner, couldn’t have been kinder about my mistake.

One evening, the Polish guys and I sat after dinner and drank the house Champagne, glass after glass poured from the wine refrigerator in the corner of the kitchen. In halting English, they told me about their children and, as they warmed to the language, waxed enthusiastic about the foods they missed from home.

“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).

I cleaned towering steel cuves (vats), inserting my upper body inside the reception vat, aiming a high-powered hose and spraying the interior (and myself) with fierce jets of water. I climbed a ladder to the top of a fermentation tank and agitated the young red wine within, pushing the floating grape skins back beneath the surface; it smelled warm and festive, faintly reminiscent of mulling spices, and left me splashed in crimson droplets.

Michaud’s work as a winemaker, I realized, relied on hoses and industrial pumps. There was always some kind of liquid on the flow, from the press to a cuve, or the removal of residue to the waste tank. He bustled about the cuverie, moving hoses from one receptacle to another, chatting with me over one shoulder (we talked a lot about the pigs that he butchers annually) while always fretting about where he would store the vast quantities of fresh juice that continued to arrive from the pressoir.

In the midst of his flurried activity, I often feared I was underfoot: a hindrance who needed instruction, rather than a helping hand. But awkward moments are part of the volunteer experience. Patience, good humor and resourcefulness are helpful traits to have on hand.

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.

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How to Volunteer at a Wine Harvest

While opportunities for volunteering at the French vendange exist, finding them requires some persistence. Because French employment is highly regulated, many winery owners say they are reluctant to use volunteers — and those who do maintain a low profile. But vendange volunteering falls into a gray area; like Airbnb in certain cities, it’s frowned upon but not strictly illegal — and if you do enough research, you realize it’s very common. Here are ways to set up your own vendange experience.

Be flexible. The wine harvest takes place anywhere from mid-August to late September, with each winery deciding its actual dates only a day or two ahead. Volunteers need to be available at a moment’s notice, which is challenging, especially if you live overseas. The harvest lasts for two to three weeks, and most volunteers work the duration. French language skills are extremely helpful, although not obligatory. (I speak fluent French, although many winery owners speak English.)

Go with a lesser-known region. As you might imagine, wineries in premier regions like Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy are inundated with eager volunteers; they’re also the most highly regulated. Instead, “focus on a different type of wine,” said Rosi Hanson, author of “Recipes From the French Wine Harvest.” Regions like the Rhône Valley or the Aube produce beautiful wines without the microscope of enormous prestige. Just make sure to choose a region that harvests by hand and not by machine, which requires significantly fewer people.

Become a regular at your local wine shop. The easiest way to become a vendange volunteer is to know a winemaker. Sound impossible? “It’s easier than you might think,” Hanson said. “It’s quite common to ask if they have contacts.” Many local shops also host events and tastings with winemakers that “can be a good way to get a relationship going,” she said. If you strike out the first time, don’t be shy about asking for other contacts. “Winemakers are quite helpful toward each other and happy to pass along information,” said Caroline Jones, owner of Domaine Rouge-Bleu.

Seek out small family-owned wineries. Small wineries are used to volunteer harvesters, said Jean-Marc Espinasse, a winemaker who is establishing a vineyard in the Bandol region in southern France. The organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms connects volunteers with independent farmers, including winemakers, through its website, wwoof.net. Members pay a 25 euro registration fee to access a database of hosts offering room and board in exchange for help.

Pay for the experience. If all this sounds like too much legwork, some enterprising wineries offer hands-on harvest experiences for a price. For example, Veuve Doussot in the Aube region (champagneveuvedoussot.com/actualite.html) has a vendange package that includes a morning of grape picking, followed by a tour of the cuverie, lunch with the team of vendangeurs, and a Champagne tasting for 40 euros. Not interested in farm labor? A bicycle tour of a wine region is another way to experience the harvest atmosphere. Tour companies like Hidden France and Burgundy Bike Tour offer packages of varying lengths in areas like Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy.

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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.