France: Grape Picking

August 2007, by Tom

Bonjour! By day two of the grape picking, this was the word we despised the most. For 13 mornings at 6:50am it was that word, followed by the systematic switch of the light switch which signified the start of the working day for us hungover, tired and extremely sore grape pickers.

- - - - -

Our much anticipated grape picking expedition started at Belleville train station - about 30 minutes north of Lyon. Where are we? Why are we here? What if they don't pick us up? Are we in the right place? What have we got ourselves into? Were some of the questions running through our minds as we sat at the trainstation waiting for a sign that things were on the right track. It didn't take long. Our sign was Tim.

Tim was the token Aussie. He was also the friendliest happiest most talkative person I have ever met. He spotted the gumboots strapped to our packs and decided to introduce himself and to see on the off-chance that we were heading to the same farm as he was. As it turned out - we were! What a stroke of luck. We proceeded to exchange traveling tales for about 45 minutes before our ride turned up. Our ride to Zordan farm was in the back of a windowless van - in pitch black! What had we got ourselves into?

The first evening on the farm was to acquaint ourselves with our hosts (Claude and Christine Zordan) as well as to meet the other pickers. There was a good mix. Of the foreigners there were five Dutch (Alesha, Andre, Remco, Wouter and Yorick), three Germans (Romy, Kristin and Nora), three from the Czech Republic (Yarrow, Eliska, Veronica), three English (Pete, Danny and Scotty), two kiwis, one Norwegian (whose name escapes me) and Tim. There were also about the same number of French - to name a few: Bastian (x2), David, Arnaud, Fabian, Remee, Roma and two very odd French characters described in more detail below.

Every day was the same - Bonjour! and lights on at 6:50am. Breakfast was at 7am which usually consisted of bread with jam (if you could stomach it) and a massive hot chocolate drank from a bowl. By 7:30am everyone was dressed and ready to pick grapes. It was non-stop hard work until around 9:45am when it was break-time. This short break consisted consistently of bread, salami, chocolate and the natural pain reliever - wine! If you drank quick, you could easily scull back three cups of wine during this 15 minute break - this definitely helped for the next hour or so!

At 12 midday it was dinner time (the first dinner). It was the first real relax we had all day - everyone already so knackered it wasn't uncommon for us to lay out in the sun in rows snoozing (and some of us snoring) while waiting for dinner to be served. Dinner at 12:30 was a large sit down meal - usually 3-4 courses - and the compulsory unlimited bottles of wine!

Alongside baskets of bread, the first course ranged from various vegetable dishes like couscous, bean salad, green salad, soup, potato stuff and various other interesting concoctions. The second course was usually a type of meat - often we couldn't pick the meat as it was mostly slow cooked - lamb, pork or beef. So tender and delicious. Occasionally it was crumbed fish or chicken. Following the mains was a desert of either apple pie, apple mousse (mush), chocolate mousse or fruit salad. Lastly came the plate of cheese! Blue cheese, brie, and orange coated cheese and other interesting tasty morsels.

After dinner there was usually enough time for another snooze or for the more adventurous, enough time for a few more glasses of wine. At 13:30 it was back out into the field for more hard labour!

The afternoon work was always the hardest. Once the wine wore off after a couple of hours the pain really set in. The work was tough - with only a short drink break in the evening to help us get through to finish time of 18:00. It really helped to eat the grapes. They were so sweet and juicy. Thirst quenching.

The final half hour was excruciating. The entire body wanting to just fall over and play "dead fish" but for fear of being castrated in French, we continued picking. "Pick grapes, put in bucket, repeat until full, empty bucket, repeat". Finally 18:00 arrives and Claude announces the end of the days work. Everyone is ecstatic! We return to the farm for pre-dinner beer and a long hot shower.

Dinner time was 19:30 and was almost identical to the lunchtime dinner except that everyone was much more relaxed knowing the days work was over and the fun could begin. The wine flowed freely and the food was abundant. I've never eaten so much in my life. And you needed it too or else you would never survive a day.

On about day four at 21:00 the cave opened up. Up until this point the cave was this mystical place of legend where bottles of wine lined the walls and partying was at it's peak. We were not disappointed. There were literally 100,000 bottles of the 2006 wine picked by the previous years pickers lining the walls. We could freely open and drink as many bottles as we wanted. This was not the cheap watered down wine they fed us during the day - this was beaujolais wine at it's finest. Dozens of bottles were drank each night but not a dent was made in the stockpile.

After a few glasses of the good stuff, everyone was jolly. There were several guitar players on the team so most nights ended up as drunken singalongs. Awesome times. For me it was Contiki all over again - partying every night - except we did work during the day and were paid to be there!

On day 13 by 11am the grape picking was completed! The celebrations started in the field with a massive grape fight - it was all on all and everyone was a sticky mess by the end of it. After the grape fight was a water fight. The French knew how to play dirty and systematically picked on everyone, tipping massive bucket-loads of water on their victims. They let me take care of Gini though, hehe. She never saw it coming. A massive bucket-load of water covering her from head to toe.

Once everyone was cleaned up we had some free time so Romy, Andre, Gini and I took a hike up the hill to look at the pretty little church. The view from up here was incredible. We could see the entire beaujolais region and also a silhouette of the French alps in the distance. We returned to the farm via Fleurie village for a pint of cold heineken. So good. Back at the farm it was time for the International Petanque Tournament. Our team was New Zealand / Australia. The tournament was knock-out and unfortunately first up we were up against one of the strong French contingents ... We went down with a fight though and ended up losing 10-13. Not a bad effort for us from down under!

Dinner on this night was a special occasion. No more of the watery wine - the good stuff was on hand. The main was a delicious duck and desert a massive bowl of chocolate mousse. After dinner the celebrations continued with the most incredible drinking game. The French all suddenly broke into song - a celebratory repetitive song in which everyone in the room, one at a time, had to touch their full glass of wine to their forehead, to their nose, to their mouth, their chest, their groin then scull the glass back in one while everyone in the room chanted "ooooweee, ooooweee ooooowee!". This song must have lasted about half an hour and was the most incredible thing I've ever experienced. Even the old ladies from the kitchen and the young boy had to drink their vessels. Fascinating. See the movie snippet at the end for a sample.

With no work the next day, the partying continued into the night and the following morning. We ended up going to bed after 6am.

The joys of waking up to Bonjour! were replaced with the joys of waking up with an intense red wine hangover! With no work left to do, we had the freedom to do what ever we want. Gini and I decided to go for a stroll and ended up strolling for a few hours and into a neighbouring village - Morgon. Such a beautiful area of France with it's fields of vines and it's old traditional looking villages. A recommended visit for anyone traveling through France - and especially for those with a nose for red wine.

The last night on the farm was another fantastic night. Everyone gathered for a huge BBQ feast on a massive outdoor table setting. Again, the wine flowed (the good wine), and the food was impressive. Being the last night, everyone was still in party mode from the massive night before. I managed till 1am before my liver started complaining and went to bed ... Gini stumbled in at 5am!

The following morning was a sombre affair - we were still jaded and sad to say goodbye to our home for the past two weeks. The experience didn't stop there however, as about 20 of us decided to meet up in Lyon at one of the French guys flats (Bastian). We had a quick nighttime tiki-tour of the city before all 20 of us returned to his flat and crashed on the floor .... I'm not entirely sure how we managed to fit, but we managed to get a few hours sleep. The next morning, and desperately needing a bed, five of us (Tim, Romy, Kristin, Gini and I) took off to find accommodation at one of the Youth Hostels and were lucky enough to score the last of the available beds. Who knew that Rugby fever had taken over the city in our absence?

Our final night with the grape pickers who were left was at a traditional Lyon style restaurant. Each of us ordered a three course "meal" and a pot of wine and were not disappointed! It was actually bloody awesome and we'll definitely be going back.

All in all, an incredible experience for both of us. One which we will definitely think about doing again - and we recommend anyone with an inkling for something different - and who doesn't mind a bit of hard labour and heavy drinking - to give it a go! We've made new friends who we intend on visiting next year in Germany, Czech Republic and the Netherlands!


Other notes:

According to - Fleurie wine is one of the ten "grand cru" and improves with age up to 10 years. It also explains why Beaujolais does not appear once on the wine labels from the bottles! We're going to suss out transporting a few boxes of the 2007 vintage (once it's bottled) home. Actually tasting the wine which our own blood, sweat and tears helped create will be something else!

The two odd French characters:

The Sheriff: Real name I think is JB. He's the old bald guy who will almost always have a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a glass of wine in his hand. For 13 days straight, the Sheriff didn't change his clothes. He would drink himself silly every night then fall face first into his pillow, clothes still on including boots and snore his way into the night. On occasion the noise of those lucky enough to sleep in his room would awaken the Sheriff causing the movement of only one of his eyes to scour the room for apparent danger. We called this the Eye of Mordor. Avoid it at all cost.

Dick Turpin: Real name unknown. He's the guy with the ponytail and the massive mustache. Turpin is one of those characters you wouldn't believe unless you saw him with your own eyes. Even then you would pinch yourself every few seconds just to make sure you weren't dreaming. Apparently a schizophrenic, he would drink more wine than anyone, end up talking and laughing to himself for half the night before going to bed making the weirdest noises (imitating elephants and chimpanzees we think), do a few star jumps before finally going to sleep ... He was the nicest guy - always happy to help pick grapes in your row and I had an interesting conversation with him about the rugby (his English was non-existent). He's been a regular at the farm for 20 years!! A legend.

Click on the video below to see a
small snippet of the drinking song:

The Sheriff (middle) shows Kristin and Andre how to pour the wine on the first night.

The Sheriff (middle) shows Kristin and Andre how to pour the wine on the first night.

Getting cosy with Romy.

Getting cosy with Romy.

Stretching the back to admire the scenery.

Stretching the back to admire the scenery.

Petanque - go team Kiwi (and Tim)!

Petanque - go team Kiwi (and Tim)!

Fleurie from above.

Fleurie from above.

Outside the restaurant. Awesome meal.

Outside the restaurant. Awesome meal.