August is probably the quietest month for vignerons in France.
The vines have done their job and now we wait for the sun to ripen the grapes, crossing our fingers that there won't be drought, rain, or hail, before harvest.
The early-ripening grapes in warm regions will need picking before the end of the month but most vineyards won't be harvested until September or October. So the first half of August is for many grape-growers, like the rest of France, a chance to go on holiday.
However, the wineries need to be made ready for the harvest.
This will involve making sure wine from the previous vintage is bottled or put into barrels for ageing. Those with excess bottled stock will be looking to sell them in supermarkets' Foire aux Vins in September. The producers who have tanks full of wine will be phoning negociants to buy the wine in bulk before the new harvest comes in.
Then, the preparation needs to be done. Presses and destemmers, pumps and hoses, sorting tables and crushers that are only used once a year need to be serviced, tested and meticulously cleaned. Discovering a problem with equipment when the rest of the country is on holiday is pretty stressful. I've been there several times!
Many vineyards these days are harvested by machine. Large estates may have their own mechanical harvesters but small growers need to contract them. Estates who use hand pickers need to hire their teams.
There is a misconception that pickers are brought in from poorer countries and paid on the black (cash in hand). In my experience this is only true for a tiny minority of vineyard-owners. Paying workers less than the minimum wage (SMIC) or not declaring them to avoid paying social contributions risks prosecution which may result in imprisonment. The police can raid a vineyard and demand to see everyone's work contracts. It also leaves the workers (and their employer) unprotected if they have an accident.
It may seem odd to British readers who view unemployment and people living on benefits as a burden on the taxpayer but the French system works in rural areas. It accepts that agricultural work is seasonal, temporary and skilled. It uses the social contributions from the employers to pay those workers during periods when there is no work. In return it means there is a pool of experienced people when they are required.
The people who work for me do not fit the image of the lazy benefit-claimant. They don't have permanent jobs but they work hard, have a great attitude and want to clock up the hours to apply for training courses, gain experience and permit them benefits to see them through to the next seasonal job.
Recently, I had two workers from Narbonne who came to check my plans for harvest. They've worked for me for three vintages now and will join a team of 16, half of whom are local regulars. If I'm going to pay the SMIC, I'd rather employ local workers who know what they are doing, rather than foreign workers who don't have the experience or students who will wilt in the heat.
Of course, August is also a time to encourage tourists to visit wineries, to teach them about the culture of the vine, to introduce them to our delicious wines and the sell them some bottles. Wine tourism in France, outside Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux, is way behind that in California, South Africa and New Zealand but there has been a big effort recently to improve oenotourisme.
Wineries have been encouraged to learn English, create attractive tasting-rooms and become ambassadors for the wonderful diversity and history of French wine. Why not visit a French winery this August?
If you have questions on this or other subjects covered in the wine column, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org