France falls back in love with its humble grape pickers


“There is no respect for the bosses in this country,” bellowed Thibaut Pariset, as he badgered his team of grape pickers up another steep row of vines near Fuisse, deep in France’s Burgundy wine region.

His mock complaints were met with loud guffaws and the odd flying grape.

“You see how they treat me,” he added before someone shouted, “It’s because you’re ugly,” and the hillside erupted in laughter.

It is this kind of good-humoured banter that keeps 69-year-old Rene Kleingardner coming back year after year to do eight hours of often backbreaking work for the minimum wage of around 10 euros ($11).

The annual ritual is a fixture of French rural life and a staple of books, graphic novels and this year a highly-praised documentary, “Vendanges” (Grape Harvests), for those who would rather watch it from the comfort of a cinema seat.

Such is its rustic allure that Kleingardner, a retired policeman, did it in his holidays for 25 years even though it was strictly against the rules. A serving soldier working alongside him admitted he wasn’t really supposed to be there either.

“Don’t say anything,” he told AFP. “I’m the invisible man.”

– Bucolic –

You can see the bucolic charm when the pickers stop for lunch amid the vines overlooking the medieval village of Chasselas, in a scene that could be straight from an Impressionist painting.

Jokes and conversation flow as they picnicked royally on salad, organic roast pork, peas and bacon, Chantal cheese, crusty baguette bread and homemade lemon cake, all washed down with lashings of wine and coffee.

“It is not quite the same when you are on your knees caked in mud in the rain,” said Sylvie Chaipuis Brethenet, 50, sitting on an upturned plastic grape box.

She works all year in the vines often on her own, the flexible hours allowing her to look after her handicapped child.

The migrant workers who traditionally helped are now rare in this corner of central France, where locals do most of the work in teams gathered through families and friends.

Eighty percent or more of grapes are now harvested by machine in many regions, said Frantz Chagnoleau, whose grapes the team were picking for his St Veran wine.

But handpicking is enjoying something of a revival in the Macon region thanks to organic winemakers like him, with the makers of the local sparkling wine, Cremant de Bourgogne, also sticking with harvesting by hand.

– ‘Better by hand’ –

For Chagnoleau a rising star of the region’s growing vin nature movement, who add little or no sulfite to their wines, the machines are a false economy.

“It is three to four times cheaper to do it by machine, but in terms of control and quality, the difference is huge,” he said.

“Watch what comes out of the machines, it is a kind of soup of grapes, leaves and stalks, and the juice starts oxidising straight away. You get 10 times less ‘bourbe’ (leaves and stems) with handpicking.”

Not to mention the damage to the vines themselves, he said, some of which are up to 100 years old.

For Chagnoleau, happy pickers are part of the alchemy of creating a great wine. “They have to be happy, their work is a big part” of the wine.

Emmanuel Guillot, of Domaine Guillot-Broux, one of France’s pioneering organic winemakers, agrees. He even has a waiting list of pickers.

“It’s a party. We roast a pig, we work hard but we have a good time together as well,” he said as he put the finishing touches to new showers and a disabled toilet in the rooms he has built for his workers.

He is one of the few producers in the Macon region to still welcome migrant workers, 28 of whom he has hired to harvest his vines further to the north near Tournus.

“Others complain they can’t get workers, but if you treat people well they will keep coming back. Some start on the fruit harvest in southern Spain and work their way up to Normandy for the apples after the grapes are done,” Guillot added.

“It can be quite a lonely life. Others come from the former East Germany and we have an Emirates air stewardess who is returning again,” he said.

“While they are here, we are a kind of family.”

© 2016 AFP

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