On a wine farm near Fuisse, in the Burgundy region, Europeans participate in the annual ritual of the “vendanges” or grape harvests, such as 69-year old René Kleingardner who does not mind the strenuous working day of eight hours. Kleingardner is a veteran of the vendanges who has been doing it for the past 25 years. Now in retirement, he previously worked as a policeman.
The annual ritual of the vendanges has been the subject of books, graphic novels and even film documentaries, so participants get to share in what is a significant aspect of French rural culture. The relationship between the winemaker and his “workers” who, although paid, are almost volunteers, is one of good humour and friendship, instead of the seedy low-wage deals often characterising our globalist age where unskilled labour is concerned.
Before there used to be migrant workers from the Third World, but now locals and other Europeans mostly do the work. Teams of grape-pickers are put together through families and friends. Handpicking is enjoying a revival due to the demand for organic wine.
According to Frantz Chagnoleau, one of the winemakers, the machines are less expensive, but cannot ensure the same healthy, quality product. “Watch what comes out of the machines,” he says. 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.”
Grape pickers come from as far afield as the former East Germany on “working holidays” where they get to enjoy the scenery, the wine, the food and the camaraderie of working in a team.
Emmanuel Guillot, of Domaine Guillot-Broux, is one of France’s well-known organic winemakers who also uses handpickers whom he tries to treat well.
“While they are here, we are a kind of family,” he says.