Tips on grape-picking work from one who has done it

With some areas of France starting to pick grapes early this year, along with annual stories of a shortage of seasonal workers, the idea of picking grapes is interesting. Brian McCulloch has picked grapes for a couple of vendange seasons. If the idea interests you, (and you do not want to go on one of those holidays where you pay to pick grapes) here is what you should know…

Getting hired

Most grapes in France are harvested mechanically so the first step is to find a region or a vine grower who harvests by hand.

Champagne bans mechanical harvesters, and has a well-organised system for handling seasonal harvesters. Other regions which have manual harvests are those with wines made with “noble rot” grapes, Sauternes and Monbazillac, for example, or who want very high-quality grapes in the press, like some Bordeaux wines. Other manual harvests are found in vineyards on very steep hills.

There is usually at least one manual harvester everywhere where grapes are grown. Usually you only find them by knocking on doors and asking if they want workers. This is by far the best way of finding work.

Other ways of finding grape picking work is through the website www.leboncoin.fr or through the Pole Emploi website. It is always best to telephone in response to the advertisements and don’t be too discouraged if you do not hear back – teams are often filled within minutes of the job appearing.

You will need an ID proving you are allowed to work in France, a Carte Vitale and a RIB from French bank account for pay. If you do not have one, a Compte Nickel, a relatively new very simple bank account set up in tobacco shops, will suffice.

What you need

You will almost certainly need a car or motorbike to get to the vineyard, and during the harvest to move from section to section.

When it rains, there is usually a scramble for the cars for wet weather gear, then work continues. Workers are divided over the best wet-weather gear – some prefer rain suits with separate trousers and tops, others prefer long rain coats. Variations include ponchos or even a black plastic bin liner with a hole for the head.

For the head, various hoods, caps or waterproof hats are used. Everyone complains though that at least one trickle of water will find its way down your back.

Keeping Wellington boots and the wet-weather gear in the boot of the car in a box or trunk is a good idea, as is having a set of dry clothes you can change into for the drive home. A roll of toilet paper is useful too, for obvious reasons.

Dress code is old clothes you do not mind getting dirty. Some vineyards, mostly larger ones, ban shorts using the theory that wearing shorts increased the risk of being in contact with irritants.

You need a good pair of shoes, sandals are usually banned. And, as mentioned before, Wellington boots or other wet weather footwear.

It is always useful to have a set of pliers, and a screw driver to adjust sécateurs, too.

Good quality, sharp sécateurs are provided on the first day. Find a pair which match you hand size, and if you are left-handed be sure to ask for left-hand sécateurs. You keep them till the end of the harvest, and are free to keep them sharp or let them go blunt. Some people wear gloves, others do not. If you do you, supply the gloves yourself.
It is also a good idea to have a basic first-aid kit of plasters and disinfectant in the car in case you cut yourself or have blisters.

How the work is organised

There are variations around the country, with Champagne, where harvesters are paid according to how much they pick, being an exception.

In most areas teams of 12 to 16 are formed on the first day of the harvest, with everyone asked to be present at 07h30 for a 08h00 start the first day. If workers have worked together before, they usually try to get in the same team, otherwise selection is usually of the “everyone to the left go with Jean-Paul and every one to the right with Richard,” variety.

The contre-maitres are usually full-time employees of the vineyard and have every incentive to get the team working well from the start.

They say “follow me”, and everyone piles into their car, forms a convoy and sets off for the first parcel to be picked, sometimes following the team tractor.

Once you get there you team up, are given baskets or a pail and start picking the grapes. In noble-rot vineyards and high-quality wine ones you will be told what to pick and what to leave before you start.

Your partner is the person the other side of the vine and the idea is to keep pace with each other, one slightly ahead to reduce the risk of fingers being cut.

When your basket is full you shout out “panier” or “rempli” according to local customer and a carrier will take the basket to the tractor a trailer assigned to the team, empty it while giving you an empty basket back.

The shouts can be as musical as you like.

At the end of the row the quickest couples are meant to look down the rows and start helping the slowest, so everyone ends at the same time. As everyone says, vine work is team work.

Depending on how long the rows are and the foreman, people usually take a five to 10 minute break at the end of the rows before starting the next.

Water is also provided, especially when it is hot, at the end of the rows.

If the foreman is not allowing enough breaks, the workers soon let him know. Sometimes there is a longer break at around 10h00, sometimes not.

At least half the team will probably smoke each break, although smoking in the rows is frowned on. As are mobile phones.

When the parcel is finished everyone piles into the cars and drives to the next one. It helps to remember the names of the parcels, especially with noble-rot harvests when you will return to complete the harvest.

Work stops at 12noon for lunch, usually for an hour and a half, and then continues to at least 16h30. You will find though that most places work through to 18h00 or even 19h00 so that 35 hours are completed Thursday, giving a three day weekend.

Towards the end of the harvest be prepared to start work just as dawn is breaking, some people use head torches.

Food and things

Food, sex, politics, sport and sometimes mixes of all at the same time, dominate talk in the vines. And there are always a few workers who love to talk, all the time, to help pass the time. If neighbours in the rows have run out of things to say, they will talk to people three or four rows down.

Occasionally teams will sing, too.

Most of your workers will probably be classified as lower-class agricultural workers by marketing departments, but there are some surprises. I have worked with a former monk, an engineer and an actor among others.

Your French will come on no-end, even though the talk often slips into regional patois never heard on the radio or television.

For the lunch break, those who live nearby inevitably go home, while the others usually find a good patch of shade and eat together. A couple of English sandwiches and a flask of coffee, look poor fare compared to the three-course picnics, often with wine, your co-workers will unload from their cars. The more organised bring chairs and tables, with table cloths.

Sometimes, especially on bigger vineyards, huttes or cabanes in the vinyards give shelter, tables, and even microwaves and coffee machines for workers to use at lunch.

How hard is it?

Picking grapes is a full time job, involving manual labour, outdoors in all weathers for six to eight weeks. Having said that, it is at the easy end of manual labour and the age-range of harvesters ranges from 16 to mid 70s.

You are bending a lot and people with stiff or bad backs or knees might have problems, but nearly everyone else, who can move a basket full of grapes, weighing around 10kg will be fine.

Workers are expected to keep up with the others, but every team soon finds its own rhythm.

Pay

You will be paid the minimum wage, the SMIC (except in Champagne which has a different pay structure from the rest of France.) Deductions vary from area to area, but in most cases you get between €900 and €1,100 a month in your bank account. You also get payments into the French medical system, sometimes into a complementary health insurance scheme too, which, if you complete the season, should keep you in for three months or so, and pension rights for the number of days worked, usually from the local agricultural caisse.

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