A day in the life of a vineyard worker

This summer I will be mostly removing leaves from vines. This is an important job that that aids ripening by exposing the bunches to the sun and reduces disease by reducing the density of the canopy, allowing for air flow and quick drying following the morning dew. As harvest time approaches, we are sent out to remove any secondary fruit (bunches that have developed from flowers that blossomed after the original set, usually the result of poor weather conditions early in the season) and unripe bunches from the vines. This helps the pickers, who will remove pretty much anything that looks grape like from the vine and increases the wine quality, as this undesirable and lesser quality fruit is removed.

The size of the team varies from four to up to twelve individuals that either hinders or alleviates the speed at which each hectare of vines is conquered.

The majority of people that you work with are usually contracted seasonal workers that may have little or no knowledge of the vines, its biology or afflictions.

A ‘pause’ is anticipated twice in the day. Stopping for a cigarette, a croissant, a coffee and a few minutes of shade and refreshment, another layer of sun cream and a chance to straighten the back, if only for ten minutes, punctuates the hours and your progress. Conversation can be limited, but becoming familiar with the language is invaluable and we slowly get to know each other.

There is an element of site sensitivity to the work. Every vineyard site is different and the way you work it is affected by your relationship with the vines and your commitment to the job. When the vineyard has been previously managed well and there is a clear task at hand, your sense of purpose is substantiated and the work is a pleasure. When a site is in poor condition or is riddled with so much mildew that you feel that your work is achieving nothing, it can be incredibly demotivating. Here is a day in that life…

The day starts early, 6:00AM. It’s still dark, but it can be sensed what sort of weather you will be dealing with from the energy in the air. Intermingled with yawns and cigarette smoke, coffee and cornflakes are the order of the day. A semi-zombified almost secular routine that becomes set in stone as the weeks of summer canopy management passes by.

The exchange.

‘Ça va?’
‘Ça va.’
‘Et toi?’
‘Ça va.’

A short drive to the vineyards allows for some extra shut-eye, if you’re in need of it. We could be in three different sites in a day, driving around the windy mountainous roads that provide spectacular views and a chance to take in the topography of the landscape. With the sun barely raised, it is a peaceful drive, interrupted by the noise of the tractors retuning from overnight spraying.

After a cigarette, a load up of sun cream, a sharpening of the secateurs, its heads down bums up.

Work in the vines is different wherever you go. It is defined by the surroundings, the people you work with, the vine variety, trellising or training system and the rest. For me it is a learning experience that develops every day. Witnessing the effects of viruses, disease, vigour and environmental conditions contribute to my knowledge of how best to manage and improve, not only a single vines performance, but also a whole vineyard site.

Every day is different. Your choice of soundtrack, the clothes you wear, your encounter with wildlife or injury. Other than that it is day in day out, which is either a comfort or a jail sentence, depending on the amount of beer consumed the night before.

If at 9:00AM you are feeling the effects of the heat, the following hours are going to be tough. The wind offers cooling relief and cloud cover can sometimes be the difference between a good or bad day. As the day progresses and your back is crying out for rest, the temptation to check the time is tempered by the negative anticipation that you may be a few hours off finishing. After a few weeks it can be easily predicted by the angle of the sun, or the increase in temperature, that the day is reaching its pinnacle and soon it will be over.

The presence of a canine companion certainly lifts the spirits, aside from its explorations and foraging, its rounds of the team is often a welcome distraction by requesting attention or offering silent consolation. A vineyard without a dog is a sorry place indeed.

Other companions, depending where you are, are flies and spiders, unidentifiable invertebrates and ludicrous looking caterpillars. Sometimes you find yourself at eye level with an alien creature that makes you jump out of your skin in surprise, or you are suddenly being used as a climbing frame for spiders that make you start and slap yourself silly. But usually, it is a symbiotic relationship and you go about your business, oblivious to the biodiversity that completely surrounds you.

Your soundtrack is important. Dependant on your energy levels and the weather conditions, it is a motivational tool that determines your pace and reflects your mood. A constructive time can be spent with a few hours of learning the language or listening to a podcast; an energy boost can be initiated with the sounds of 65daysofstatic; a coppice of quiet reflection accompanied by Bill Callahan; a period of hours uplifted by De La Soul.

Scrapes, cuts, bruises, sore back, burnt bits that were missed in the application of sun cream are all part and parcel of the job. Chemical residues can be so much that they begin to change the colour of your clothes, a distinct yellow tinge of sulphur developing on your unwashed vineyard shorts. Using secateurs can cause your hand to spasm in a way that paralyses the fingers and can take a couple of hours to fully recover from.  Accidentally rubbing the sulphur residue on the vines into your eyes can causes chronic streaming and stinging for days. Simply walking into a wayward vine can cause a bruise of spectacular colour.

Everything you do in the vineyard and to each individual vine will effect its performance, even if only minutely; you are contributing to the development and condition, the health and the function and ultimately the quality of the grapes that will determine the resulting wine. If these thoughts are maintained in your mind as you work, every day, no matter how mundane or tiring, a sense of achievement and contribution can be taken away.

There is no sugar coating this work. It is hard, menial and sometimes physically exhausting and hazardous. It is not difficult, but it promotes challenges if you are keen to tackle them. It is not romantic per se, friends and family have a distorted image of a life of ease and tranquillity as you wander around the vines, picking grapes all year round and pressing them underfoot (a naïve opinion seemed to be shared by many of my contemporaries), if only it was that easy! It does beat the rat race and the concrete jungles, though. Your office is the land, the mountains and the vistas, your canteen the shade of a tree or the relative comfort of the transportation. It is almost always beautiful (weather permitting), it is almost always rewarding. I am always mindful of how lucky I am.

The day ends at lunchtime, 1:00PM. A time that previously may have been my usual time of waking.  After seven hours surrounded by shades of green, the day is beginning to reach its peak in temperature and if we are lucky, that peak is only just beginning.

The journey back from the vines is relieving. Eagerly jumping into the car in a haze of dust and sulphur, the anticipation of a cold beer followed by some grub and a siesta, the rest of the day full of opportunities of exploration or rest, are happy thoughts indeed.

Windows down, the breeze helping to remove some of the dust and tendrils collected along the way, another day is done. A time to begin removing the grass seeds from your socks and most enjoyably, a rest for your back.

There is a limit to the enjoyment one gets from vineyard work, but there is no limit to the feeling you get once a day is done. There is no dread that tomorrow is coming around again; I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else; well, maybe the beach.

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Leah De Felice Renton & Nicholas Jones are Plumpton BSc Wine Production graduates & now winemakers on the wing, relishing the risks and challenges involved in the whole operation. www.birdsandbats.co.uk

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