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Squeezing the most out of a grape-harvesting experience

July 9, 2003 - The Boston Globe

BORDEAUX, France - The grape harvest season in the Gironde region surrounding Bordeaux is exceedingly romantic. It’s also the only time that most chateau gates swing closed to concentrate on the harvest, leaving many visitors to wonder what’s going on in the fields.

Parisian wine bars create a tantalizing picture with their hand-painted frescoes of ‘‘Les Vendanges’’ (the harvest), where everyone is singing and drinking. One in five is actually picking grapes, two are eating a giant feast, and two are hidden away… frolicking.

The sense of expectation leaves a lot to be lived up to.

The Route des Chateaux through the Haut-Medoc is like a trip through the high-end section at Somerville’s Wine & Cheese Cask. As you leave the city of Bordeaux, the names on the road signs all point to nearby towns with recognizable wine names like Medoc, Pauillac, Margaux, and St. Estephe. On the way to Chateau Pontet-Canet, my guides present each chateau we pass with a reverence I used to reserve for baseball cards.

Timing for the harvest has a degree of variability to it, but as a rule, it runs for two to three weeks, between late August and early October. Weather conditions during the growing season, location from the region to the microclimate, and grape variety (white grapes before red) all affect when the harvest takes place.

Though numbers vary each year, fewer than 10,000 mostly local workers take part. Technically, it’s possible as a non-European citizen to participate in the harvest, but unless you have a connection with a vineyard that will pay you under the table, the bureaucracy involved deters one from even trying.

In Margaux, the first groups of harvesters appear among the vines: clusters of people toting rectangular tubs called ‘‘cagettes’’ or backpack-style ‘‘hottes.’’ Everyone’s close to a stream of tractors that continually haul the grapes away and come back for more.

A white pebble-lined driveway leads up to Pontet-Canet, an elegant but modest-sized chateau with interconnected winemaking facilities, dormitories, and offices. Vineyard owner Alfred Tesseron can’t pick grapes right now, however. In their two harvest weeks, his job is to keep the spotlight focused continually on the Pontet-Canet label.

‘‘The image of the wine is very important,’’ he says, as if revealing a secret. While the harvesters are out among his vines, Tesseron gives daily lunches at the chateau for buyers, while evenings are reserved for four-star dinners with people from neighboring chateaux and old friends. A butler, a maid, and a chef are kept on staff just for the harvest. ‘‘Les bonnes bouteilles’’ (the good bottles) are broken out. Tesseron makes sure everyone leaves happy.

Walking out to join the grape pickers is like a scene in a movie where the protagonist walks into a group of natives for the first time. They look at him, blank-faced and intimidating, and he looks back, out of his element and intimidated. This feeling turns out to be unfounded once the grapes start flying: targeted throws, get-your-neighbor-in-the-ear throws, blind throws at nobody particular.

No one’s safe. No one stays clean.

This immediately upsets one’s preconception that every bunch of grapes is lovingly handpicked and crushed by dainty feet. The grapes that are flung do tend to be past their prime, and the amount left to be harvested by hand after that is enormous. Even across the street at the high-end Chateau Mouton Rothschild, it would be hard to imagine a better harvesting method. Compared with the machine-harvest tractors that are a combination of car wash brush and tree chipper, the cagette/hotte method is white glove treatment.

Pickers are loosely assigned to teams of four with the addition of a hauler. The pickers shuffle along, bent over and bumping their cagettes along in front or towing them behind. Standing up, most of what you see is the backs of their T-shirts and the hauler, the only upright person, staggering under his load.

I’m assigned to be the hauler for a team of self-proclaimed ‘‘rowdy old ladies’’ (think dirty old men, but worse), one of whom, Micheline, seems to have an affinity for younger journalists. My gently balding pate bothers them little as several times I turn around to quickly hushed giggles or squelched lewd gestures.

I’m on the road to acceptance.

Harder to accept is being a hauler. The hauler delivers empty cagettes to his pickers and returns to the tractor with four full ones loaded onto a backpack-style rig made of metal bars.

Loading up, one cagette is hefty, two becomes a bit much, and three requires a Zen-like resistance to stay upright.

I wonder if my spinal cord is being compressed. The thin straps that hold the rack to my back cut off all circulation to my arms, and my hands turn purple.

I find some sort of spread-footed equilibrium and make my way to the tractor. We finish a row, and instead of heading to the next one, everyone thankfully plops down and takes a break. Crew members settle into little cliques, break out their cellphones, or circle around Micheline standing on her cagette to watch her improvised vaudeville show.

The work/rest rhythm turns out to be close to 50-50, and at the end of a break, everyone returns to the rows as if given a signal by an unseen hand. The hand turns out to be that of Joel Labrousse, personnel manager at Pontet-Canet. Labrousse, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a 40-year-old Jimmy Connors, started off as a tractor driver 17 years ago.

He sums up his harvest philosophy in a few words: ‘‘Be straight up with people, never lie, and don’t tease - we always need every person out here, and we don’t have the right to do things like that.’‘

As we talk, a red, two-car commuter train scoots by, seemingly out of a movie set, skirting the edge of the field. The only passenger, a woman in white, stands up and waves fervently. Labrousse grins richly, ‘‘That’s my wife.’‘

Another husband and wife team is Chantal and Michel Nicolas, from the neighboring town of St. Germain d’Esteuil. The couple, in their mid-40s, have been coming to do the harvest at Pontet-Canet for years.

‘‘We do this as a vacation, plus we make a little money to pay for the next one,’’ Chantal says.

No one who comes out to the harvests for the full three-week duration does it entirely for the fun of it, but for most, the money seems secondary.

Twentysomething Cyril Mestreau, from the nearby town of Talais, says, ‘‘Here, we can see the world go by, and we’re happy to let it go.’‘

Working in the rows, you gain an instant sense of pride for your hands. They get nicked and dirty, covered with the coarse, rocky soil, bits of vine and grape juice. Handshakes are sticky affairs.

After clipping a few rows, you also realize why the word ‘‘backbreaking’’ comes up over and over with friends who have done the harvest before you. The gratification of the work and camaraderie, however, helps you forget any pain.

Along with the breaks at the end of the rows, mealtime is when the workers get to know one another. Everyone sits elbow to elbow on wooden benches at tables as long as the room. Wine flows freely from magnums refilled for the occasion hundreds of times before, their labels stained purple. The mood is merry, old friendships are solidified and new ones born. Wine and gossip flow, histories are revealed, and talk of insurrection brews when rumors of ‘‘No cafe’’ circulate at the end of a meal. Miraculously, the coffee appears, and the riot is squelched.

After lunch, when it’s time to head back to the fields, the caravan of little French cars performs a jolly three-minute horn extravaganza.

Self-proclaimed ‘‘German nomad’’ Dennis Gherad, in his mid-40s, has been coming to Pontet-Canet for 11 years. Though he speaks little French, and some of the folks in the fields speak little else, he glows with contentment from having taken advantage of his European citizenship to spend the last five weeks harvesting his way down the country. With a bit of chutzpah on his part, along with most everyone’s willingness to meet people, conversations are cobbled together and the language barrier is humorously sidestepped.

He sums up the harvests with a wide grin, ‘‘It does you good to come here, to do this. The people are good.’‘

I leave wishing my hands wouldn’t heal.

Joe Ray is a freelance writer who lives in Paris. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

How to get there

The lowest upcoming round-trip air fare between Boston and Paris available at press time started at about $800 on US Airways and Northwest Airlines, connecting through Amsterdam, Philadelphia, or Detroit. Nonstop flights start at $835 on Air France. To get to Bordeaux, take the ultra-quick three-hour TGV from Paris (several a day; about $115 round-trip), then rent a car in Bordeaux. You can find train ticket information at Booking ahead saves significantly.

Car rental from the St. Jean train station in Bordeaux:

National Car Rental

To find a list of vineyards that need help, go to You can also contact specific vineyards using The vineyard you find will help you secure your temporary working papers.

What to do

Bordeaux’s wine council, the CIVB
1 cour du 30 Juillet (across from tourism office)
The CIVB offers a wine school with courses lasting two hours, a weekend, or several days. The council will also send you information about specific wine regions and which chateaux will be open during the harvest. Call 011-33-5-56-00-22-88.

Harvest festivals
Scores of harvest festivals in the Gironde make up for the closed chateaux.

Festival dates:
Marcillac - Oct. 5
Leognan - Oct. 17-19
Duragne - Oct. 17-19
Pugnac - Oct. 18-19 (a ‘‘gerbaude’’ - the blowout party at the harvest’s end)
Caplong - Oct. 25
Fronsac - Oct. 28 (also a gerbaude)

For more festival information, contact the regional tourism office.
21 cour de l’Intendance

Where to stay

France is graced with an outstanding and inexpensive network of bed & breakfasts. The ‘‘Gites de France - Gironde’’ is the regional B&B association. Ask for the ‘‘Bacchus’’ B&Bs - those situated directly on vineyards. You will be able to make your reservations directly with them.
011-33-5-56-81-54-23 (English spoken) (click on the Union Jack for English)

All-star B&Bs and hotels of note:

Manoir de Belle Fontaine B&B
2 rue Fontaine, Roaillan
(no English version available, but easy enough to understand)
A 17th-century manor in a tiny town 35 minutes south of Bordeaux. Rooms are $77-$103 for two (no credit cards accepted)

Chateau Loudenne
Saint Yzans
The Lafragettes welcome visitors in their 17th-century convent turned four-star hotel, which overlooks their vines and an estuary. Rooms are $113-$135 a night.

Chateau Layauga
A four-star, seven-room hotel noted for its restaurant in a one-street hamlet. Rooms cost $113 a night for two; breakfast is $11.

Relais de Chateau d’Arche
A luxurious new hotel just north of Sauternes on the vineyard with the same name. Rooms are $124-203. (English version is not yet online.)

Where to eat

Le Saprien
14 rue Principale, Sauternes
This restaurant is situated in a wine house, with a dining terrace in the vines. Prix-fixe dinners are $50; $22 and up for entrees

L’Auberge les Vignes
21 rue Principale
A cozy setting accentuating home-style regional cuisine; noted for its foie gras. Prix-fixe menus are $12-$28, a la carte around $16.

Le Lion d’O
Place de la Republique
Chef Jean-Paul Barbier serves up excellent cuisine at a great value in one of the Gironde’s favorite restaurants. Prix-fixe menus start at under $12.

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