Vendanges nostalgia and a warning about being too eager to volunteer. I had the good fortune to participate in a couple. During my college years for the summers of 1985 and 1986 I headed to Sequoia Grove Winery in the Napa Valley and was very lucky to have worked under Jim Allen and his team. Cleaning tanks, sulphuring barrels, brushing floors and shovelling grapes. Actual grape picking here was not offered; the regular pickers were far too adept and were not going to tolerate a non-productive team mascot. Grit to the mill at Sequoia Grove.
The most gruelling and perhaps rewarding Vendange was with Domaine Vincent Sauvestre in Chablis. Little did I know what was in store for me when I packed my small bag and headed off to Chablis aged 22. Having navigated planes and trains and secured a taxi, I found myself being shepherded into a large dormitory hosting 20 other ‘pickers’ all local. Cramped to say the least!
Pickers dormitory. Challenge one was trying to understand what was going on and where to go - the inadequacies of my schoolboy French were immediately apparent. Smiles and infrequent words allowed me to survive the arrival phase. Challenge two rapidly followed. The alarm rang out at 6am, the room sprung to life. Minutes later we were being herded onto a bus with next stop the vineyards. A quick demonstration on grape picking, a 20 kg container allocated and a row of vines pointed to. Allez, allez. Stooped, secateurs in hand, moving at some speed; clearly no romance in this rapid picking activity. Running parallel to me were a Polish team who were annual attendees. They moved with such ease and speed. Interestingly they picked for wine rather than money. Break for wine, bread and chocolate at 10am. Very welcome. Spirits waning, lower back pain accelerating. More of the same, then lunch. Conclude at 4pm. Immense back pain, borderline despair but fuelled determination.
Left: A young David Whelehan takes a break.
Left: The dormitory where the grape-pickers slept.
7pm stew, bread, wine, laughter a rapid dilution of the misery, the cure. The days repeated themselves and the challenges grew as the vineyard slopes moved from gradual to pronounced. We were progressing through the appellation from AC Chablis, to AC Premier Cru, to AC Grand Cru. Every day, somebody was sent home for not keeping up. There was no place to hide as the vine rows ran parallel and it was immediately apparent if you were lagging. By Day 10 the pain threshold had been broken and this Irish volunteer was solidly in the middle of the picking pack. Day 19 the experience concluded and strong and warm memories etched. This box had been resolutely ticked. Note to diary, grape picking is not for the faint-hearted.