One September, I picked grapes in a tiny village in France. My brother and his wife have a house in Petit Bersac, in the Dordogne. When I heard there would be a vendange–a harvest–I knew I couldn’t miss it.
I’d met Serge and Paulette a few years earlier in Petit Bersac. The oldest couple in the village, they lived traditionally. Serge would bike down the road in his beret to tend to his fields, garden plots and vines dotted around the village. In the backyard they kept rabbits and chickens, and each autumn they made table wine, cognac and pineau to last the year, out of a truckload of assorted grapes. The harvest was celebrated by a feast in their yard for all the volunteers. It was a rare opportunity to be part of a dying tradition.
Sadly, Serge had passed away in the year before this vendange, so his son Guy was in charge of the harvest, the grapes and the crushing while Paulette was, as usual, in charge of the meal.
On harvest day we met at their house, at the table set up for the afternoon feast. 8:00 AM and the menu was red wine, coffee, bread, ham and blood sausage. And cigarettes. I learned that while women were welcome to join the harvest, they did not usually participate in this part of the festivities, but modern ideas prevailed, and I breakfasted there along with my sister-in-law and Guy’s wife and the menfolk.
We walked up the road to the vines in the morning mist. A variety of red and white grapes were planted in rows, strung along thick wires and heavy with fruit. Each picker was issued a pair of rustically rusty, but quite sharp and effective, clippers and a plastic basket or bucket. A few of the sturdier men served as mules, wearing a galvanized metal flat-sided backpack into which all the pickers tipped their bounty.
A democratic acceptance prevailed. When I was spotted trimming off the moldy grapes, I was admonished to just chuck the whole bunch in. Earwigs were ubiquitous and also not worthy of extracting. I did persist in removing slugs, though the veteran harvesters doubtless found that rather precious.
It was a beautiful foggy morning and the vines were a technicolor blaze of red, orange, green and yellow. A special perk was sampling the many varieties as I picked: some honey-sweet, some deep and complex. Eventually our crew of twenty or so pickers had stripped the vines of every grape, filling the tractor-trailer to the brim, so we ambled back into town to watch the grapes be sucked out of the trailer and crushed on their way into an enormous wooden barrel.