Life on a vineyard seems romantic: working with sprawling rows of gnarly vines, connecting to Mother Earth and all of her natural resources, and of course, having a proximity to copious amounts of delicious wine. However, harvest time on a vineyard provides some of the most back-breaking and unglamorous work out there. In honor of Labor Day, we’re taking you on a firsthand journey of a day in the life of a vigneron during this intense and special time of year. The blood, sweat, and tears involved to create a simple bottle for our meal time pleasure is more extreme than you may think-- think you’re up for the challenge?
A firsthand account told by our Content & Social and Media Manager, Vicki Denig.
5:30 AM - Alarm goes off. The tractor arrives in 15 short minutes to pick us up and begin the day. Exhaustion and soreness from yesterday’s pick radiate through my body, and all I want to do is stay in bed. We throw on our same dirt-stained shorts from yesterday, a tank top, and a light jacket. Although it’s chilly out now, the sun will be strong by mid-day. Layers are key (I learned this the hard way.)
5:45 AM - We load into the tractor and begin the journey to today’s picking site. We’ve only got a ten minute ride; no words are exchanged on the entire journey. We’re all too exhausted and the day hasn’t even begun. It's still dark outside. This should be fun.
📸: Vicki Denig
7:35 AM - The early morning casse-croûte break. Thank God. We’ve picked for two hours and my legs are already cramping. Casse-croûte literally translates to ‘breaking bread,’ which is exactly what we’re doing. The bag of delicious pastries is released from the truck and we all turn our buckets over, plop down on them, and dive in. It’s only 7:35 and the chill in the air is beginning to dissipate. The day is only going to get hotter.
8:15 AM - After a few early morning hours of picking, we’re on our way back to the winery to dump the first round of Chardonnay into the press. I can’t believe how sore my legs are. Going into this, I was convinced that scaling the hillsides would be the hardest part. Turns out it takes twice as much strength and balance to hand-harvest while coming downhill. We arrive back at the winery and throw the fruit into the destemmer, which shakes the berries from their stalks. The juice is pumped into the press where an inflatable balloon like contraption gently squeezes the juice from the fruit. It rains fresh grape juice and the smells are divine: sweet, honeyed aromas fill the air. Though it’s not all glamorous-- there are bees everywhere.
10:25 AM - I collapse to the ground and feel the wet earth beneath my shorts. Gross, but it’s the only moment to take the pressure off of my lower back.
11:45 AM - People twice my age, in half as good shape as me, are harvesting at twice the speed that I am. I feel pathetic. Also, I was too proud to wear gloves and now I’m missing a small chunk of my finger. Pruning shears are no joke.
📸: Vicki Denig
12:00 PM - We pile into the tractor to bring back the last load of morning fruit. The sun has already gotten stronger since this morning. How is the day only halfway over? My stomach is cramping with hunger pains. How do these people actually stay satiated all morning, simply from a croissant? My legs feel like I’ve been doing squats for four hours. I basically have been.
Back at the winery, we pile around the picnic table set up just next to the press. The first round of juice has already been transferred into the steel vats in which it will begin fermenting. The winemaker’s wife brings out a big dish of tomates farcies, a regional dish of stewed tomatoes stuffed with ground meat and spices. There’s fresh salad, roasted vegetables, and a few bottles of unmarked wine floating around the table. Despite feeling more dehydrated than I’ve ever felt in my life, I pour a rather large serving, hoping that the wine will somewhat alleviate the radiating pain in my sides. Over the last 48 hours, I’ve contorted my body into obscure shapes for the sake of ‘leaving no cluster behind.’ I’m paying for it now.
12:50 PM - We’re still sitting, albeit, mostly in silence. Everyone is clearly exhausted, though morale is high, and a few jokes are made. I’m praying this moment of reprise never ends.
1:15 PM - After both lunch and dinner, we’re presented with the most grandiose displays of chevre, Comté, and pungent Roquefort. In this moment, I realize what a slave I am to my own palate. Will work for cheese.
1:30 PM - All good things must come to an end, and it’s back to the tractor we go. We’re heading to a different site this afternoon, but all I want to do is take a nap. Have I mentioned by lower back is killing me?
3:05 PM - The layers were necessary. Not only is everything throbbing, but now I’m getting sunburned. Note to self: don’t forget sunglasses. Ever. Again.
4:35 PM - Back in the tractor to drop off another round of fruit and toss it into the press. I know it’s childish, but I love watching the destemmer shake the berries from their stalks prior to being sent up to the press to meet their fate. I just checked-- I am indeed sunburnt. And my knees are killing me. As soon as 4:30 hit, the winemaker handed me the small reward for my day’s work: a crisp can of beer. A reward for my day’s work-- or perhaps a motivation for yet another round of hunched over picking. Either way, I let the suds flood by taste buds. I’ve never tasted anything so divine.
5:20 PM - The sun is fiery hot and everyone is dripping sweat. All I can think about is these grapes soaking in the sun and letting their sugars release the flesh beneath their skins. If only it worked that way for us. I feel like a rotisserie chicken. Another random vineyard thought: the best companion amongst the vines, besides sunscreen, gloves, bug spray, a hat, etc. etc.? This winery dog. Morale is definitely up because of him.
📸: Vicki Denig
7:15 PM - FINALLY. The moment we’ve all been waiting for-- the day’s picks are over! However, the work doesn’t end year. Nope, this is just a mere break until the post-dinner duties, which arguably, are even less fun. Cleaning.
We all join around the communal picnic table again, though spirits are more lifted than this afternoon in knowing that our physical pain has found some relief. A handful of unmarked bottles of wine clink amongst the many beer bottles littered across the table. A huge roast chicken comes out and everyone dives in.
9:00 PM - It’s 9:00 PM and the work still isn’t done yet. The press needs to be cleaned and everything needs to be hosed down. If there’s one takeaway from winemaking, it’s that producing a good bottle of wine requires just as much attention to cleaning as it does vinification.
10:30 PM - I’m sore in a way I’ve never felt before. Muscles I didn’t even know existed hurt. Numerous band-aids are wrapped around my fingers where the pruning shears went astray. My knees ache. We pop one last beer and I dig my fingers into my lower back, attempting to work out some of the pain radiating into the backs of my legs. It’s a useless effort. Soon, I’ll be laying down, though not for long. 5:30 AM comes quickly.