Harvesting Hope and The Myth of The Dignity of Labour

Millions are on the move. Right now in California and Spain, in Bordeaux and in Tuscany and across the northern hemisphere where it is now autumn, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of pickers are now heading towards the world’s greatest vineyards and about to engage in the simplest but the most absolutely vital process in the creation of all of the worlds wines.

Harvesting, picking or the vendages begins now.

In nearly every country across the northern Hemisphere, September is regarded as one of the most joyous and hopeful months. It is a time of the year filled with produce, filled with food, with wine and in many countries with song.

In Ireland of course, September and Harvest festivals ring almost no bells.

This is not our fault, it is, to use a fashionable word, systemic. This is because our agriculture has tended to concentrate on dairy and livestock, harvest time is anytime the cows are milked or when livestock is sold, rather than locked in by nature.

This resulting lack of connectivity to the Harvest is also not unique to Ireland, in the UK beyond its brace of rural counties and in large swathes of post industrial Europe, people outside of farming have little sense of it. The reason is that agriculture has become a large, specialist and mechanised industry in most developed nations. The farming community neither wants, nor requires any intervention from the rest of us.

The harvest is not a communal effort, it is a big machine event, with specialist operators.

Everywhere except in those fields that value the hand of a human being, or cannot afford machines.

The Last Humans In The Landscape

Winemaking is one of the few agricultural activities that does not just value the human being in the process, it makes the intervention a value added component of the final product.

Your carton of milk dehumanises the process, it commodifies milk into a part of the scientific legacy of the enlightenment. Pasteurised and homogenised it shouts, rather than milked by hand, brought by hand in small pales to the dairy.

Wine however stresses handpicked, other labels will talk about the small baskets the picked grapes are placed in and more again will tell the tale of hand sorting the berries in the field on tables. The more human intervention the better, or at least the more chance of popping a premium on the price.

How the message of how human effort is part of the wine making will vary depending on the ambition and marketing budget of the wines involved. The First Classed Growths and other wines that will ultimately sell for thousands of euro tend to have whole websites devoted to the Vendage, with videos and tales of big dinners at the end of each days picking and hi-jinks in the communal quarters of the army of pickers.

In the important and famous wineries and Chateaux around the world being a picker is a highly sought after position. The days when thousands of students made up the army of pickers is rapidly fading, though students are still a bedrock in Southern France and parts of Italy and Spain.

Doing the vintage is not unlike a few weeks in Irish college for many of our EU cousins, and many French families do still seem to value seeing their university attending sons and daughters getting their hands dirty. This in turn has lead to the situation in some wineries that I have visited having the feel of a fairly hip postmodern industrial venue complete with music blasting from high end speakers built into the vat rooms.

In the very top wineries however, the picking is highly regulated and a seasoned workforce of people who come back year after year, with their children being trained in and then taking over from them.

Breaking into one of these near cartel like picking crews is very difficult.

“Honestly, people now send in CVs and are on a waiting list looking for cancellations to join the harvest” said Jonathan Malthus, owner of Chateau Teyssier and La Dome in St. Emilion and proud possessor of a very loud sound system.

In Bordeaux and in St.Emilion and across Burgundy things are a bit more formal.

The annual Medoc Marathon, combined this year with a medical conference on sports medicine takes place this weekend with the emphasis is on charity. Many pickers, especially students use the Marathon as the staring point for the next few weeks of picking. The event is a good place to pick up tips on openings and which employer has the best food. Or best of all, which Chateau serves the best wines to its pickers.

The Myth of The Dignity of Labour

Anyone planning to head over to France, Spain, Portugal, Italy or Germany for the Harvest over the next month or so should be aware of two things, firstly, this year’s harvest is around 10 days behind in France and Italy, and more importantly, the stories that circulate about the wines you get as a picker are a myth.

I would also add, that picking grapes is where I learned to cast a very sceptical eye over anyone who talks about the dignity of manual labour or indeed anyone who feels that the industrial revolution was all bad.

While I have met hundreds of sane Irish people who absolutely love grape picking and the camaraderie of the whole event, personally, for me it defines the words back-breaking.

Of course grapes are light, tiny and light, the boxes are not heavy either, if they were the fruit would be crushing itself and potentially spoiling. No for me the issue is the bending, the constant bending down and, the wasps. No one ever talks about the wasps.

There is a wasp conspiracy of silence in the wine world. Yet it is simple, everywhere there are mounds of sweet, ripe juicy berries, you will find swarms of wasps. I have run waving my arms around like a Winnie the Pooh on crack in some of the finest vineyards from Ribera del Duero to AC Margaux being chased by swarms of yellow and black airborne terrors.

That’s just me and happily, European vineyards loose very few of their workers to wasp attacks.

In Europe then for the most part grape picking is seen as a noble, desirable and quite family orientated activity.

As I suggested however, things are changing. Large communities of Roma and substantial Eastern European migrants often arrive in wine regions in Europe to pick and harvest. Here is the other side of handpicking. The back breaking work is not an adventure activity for wine lovers and students. Camps of caravans spring up across southern Europe and tensions run high.

In Bordeaux late last month as I was visiting, the Rocade, their M50 was brought to a complete and messy halt by Roma would be workers in Bordeaux for the upcoming harvest who were protesting against a grab-bag of issues including the Roma deportations that President Nicolas Sarkozy instituted but also against low wages and poor conditions.

Over the nest few days out in Bordeaux Le Lac, the gateway to the vineyards of the Medoc I watched CRS, the highly militaristic segment of the French Police engaged in a very tense corralling and watching game with huge swathes of a virtual caravan city that had emerged, as it often does in the run up top the harvest. In the economic downturn it seemed this very usual caravan city was now unwelcome, suddenly working permits were all the rage.

Of course, what is seemingly clear is that these pickers will be operating in poorer bulk vineyards, producing the bulk Bordeaux wines of highly indifferent quality that Bordeaux cannot sell and we regularly find wanting in this column.

Which of course produces a vicious circle of not being able to pay well enough. Here is where machine harvesting would regrettably perhaps be a response.

Of course there are parts of the world where machine harvesting is considered too dear and human labour is the cheap alternative.

What is surprising is that such vineyards are to be found in California.

“People think of Californian wines as high end, expensive wine. That is true of course, but only if you define Napa, Sonoma, Rutherford or Russian River valley as California.” Says Jonah Beer of Frogs Leap

Last year we saw that Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa made the revolutionary move to pay their pickers a proper living, legal wage. It set them apart from many others in a business that almost openly relies on illegal immigrants from Mexico and nearly every year racks up fatalities in those pickers from disgracefully issues such as lack of water and shade.

This is because California is still very hot throughout the picking and harvesting whereas the game in Europe is a cat and mouse affair with autumn showers and on occasions frosts and storms.

Despite all the hardships, hand harvesting grapes is considered still to be the very best practice by almost every top winery or chateaux. The human and hand and the human eye are still amongst the most delicate and sophisticated tools we can deploy.

Wine, is a mark of civilisation very fundamentally because it brought people together, showed them their interdependence and the benefits, perhaps even the fun of civil society. It is a lesson or signal of hope that harvesting is needs to give us, now more than ever.