Shaking down the vines

This is a weird wine story, and it happened in 1971, in the south of France.

It was one of those scorching September days at harvest. We were awakened early in the morning by the foreman of the winery. At harvest time the winery opened one of the wings of the chateau as a dormitory for the harvesters of the grapes. There was one shower on the first floor of the estate for the 10 of us to use. Past the shower room was the machinery and tractor shed, which had been cleared out and replaced with long tables and benches for us to use during meal times. The food was excellent at this Baujolais winery, but at five in the morning, nothing tasted good.

We bowed our heads and tried to drink enough French roast to make it to 10 a.m., when we were ushered back for a mid morning break. I remember looking at the other pickers; two Brits, myself and seven French students, men and women, who had signed up for the fall harvest. We had made the great mistake (in hindsight) of drinking cheap wine most of the night so that, judging from my own head, things were a little shaky.

We were bussed in a closed, metal Citroen van to the picking site and bounced around the country roads with hangovers, black coffee and what little we could put in our stomachs for the ride. When we slipped out of the van I was handed my bucket a ceppete (cutting tool that resembled a sharp coat hanger loop) and a liter of cold water. When the foreman pointed to where we were to pick, I looked up and saw a mountain goat's dream. This vineyard, south side exposed to the full hit of the sun, went straight up. This was going to be a tough morning and I could feel the liquid leaving my body in streams as I made it up the quarter mile to the crest of the vineyard.

Not more than an hour away, I looked up to see my fellow pickers struggling with the vines but something else caught my eye. There seemed to be more folks in the vineyard than were assigned to it and I scanned the 40 or so acres to make out who they were. These folks went fast and cut like Samurai on the vines. Little movement and a lot of grapes hitting the buckets. Every once in a while I saw the foreman (a very nice guy, actually) looking around in an anxious way, then walked among us to keep us moving. The next time I looked up, I saw that there were the original 10 and the other quick harvesters were nowhere to be found. I also saw, to my amazement, that there were five or six spotless blue vans around the perimeter of the vineyard. As I looked closer, I spied many blue-tunic-clad and pillbox-hatted French police (looking much like a Pink Panther movie) walking through the vineyard. One came to me and spoke to me sternly, asking me where I was from. I always carried my passport around my neck in a waterproof pouch. This Gendarme gave me the "once over" made a brief salute and moved on.

I found out later that many folks wanted by the French police made a quick Franc by walking into vineyards, working for as long as they can and get paid by the weight that they pick while they are there.

They are handed cash by a very nervous foreman then they slip out of the vineyard, hopefully not detected by the net of blue. This happened to me often, being checked by France's Finest and it never failed to rattle me just a little bit every time, It occurred so often that I was remembered by the police in the villages around the winery. With a wink and a small salute of the baton they would pass me on the streets on my days off. Only once did they run down a man in front of my eyes and it was quite a sight seeing billowing blue capes flying through a quiet morning in the French countryside.

Many times there's more in a bottle of wine than meets the eye!

See you next week!

Share This Story