Like many sommeliers, I have often fantasized about taking a break from the grind to work harvest. This year I finally decided to go for it. I scoured the Internet for the contacts of my favorite Burgundy producers—Dujac, Chevillon, Lafon, and so on. I rounded up about 20 email addresses, and with my moderate French writing skills and the help of Google translate, I sent the producers all a letter asking for a stage, or harvest internship. Of the 20 wineries I contacted, only five replied: four nos and one maybe. The maybe came from Olivier Lamy of Domaine Hubert Lamy in Saint-Aubin. After some back and forth, he agreed to take me on as a vendangeur and go from there. That was enough for me to quit my job, pack my bags, and head to France.
On the day of harvest, I was to arrive at the domaine at 7 am. To commute from my aunt’s house on the hilltop of Bouze-lès-Beaune, I awoke at 5 to get ready. I rushed out the door at 6:15, hopped on a dinky little 50cc scooter, and puttered through the back roads that descended into the sleepy village of Nantoux and led toward Monthélie and Meursault. As the moon glowed on the horizon and the sun began to rise, I was filled with the sense of urgency and excitement I’d come for. I arrived at the winery just in time to hop in the van with my fellow vendangeurs.
I looked around at a bunch of smiling faces. About half of those smiles were missing teeth. The faces were wrinkled and weathered. I had brought the average age of the van’s riders down by about 20 years and up by at least one tooth—I was certainly not in New York anymore.
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When we arrived in Chassagne-Montrachet, we went straight to work. Olivier Lamy handed me pair of secateurs and a basket and quickly demonstrated how to clip the bunches. After struggling for a while to get the hang of cutting, I popped my head up for air. I was behind. Way behind. I finished my first row in a dismal last place. In fact, two or three other harvesters had to come help me. I was by far the weakest of the team.
The second row ended in the same miserable fashion. Humiliation was beginning to set in. So was pain. In shifting between squatting and bending and twisting and turning to wrangle the wild, motionless grapes, I was contorting my body in ways I never had before. At one point, bent over in the shape of a P, I had a momentary feeling that I might never stand up straight again.
On the third row of the day, I kept up with the pack. I put my head down and cut and moved, and cut and moved. I managed to keep pace and finished my row unaided. A sense of triumph came over me. I could do this. Except that now I was exhausted. For the rest of the afternoon, I shuffled down the vines on my backside, only to be yelled at to get up.
Next morning, I arrived at the winery to the news that a few more bodies had been added to the team, and so we needed another porteur. Perhaps with my previous day’s lackluster performance in mind, Lamy offered me the chance to switch jobs. As a porteur, I would wear a large, cone-shaped basket on my back into which my team of pickers would empty their individual baskets. I would have to stay ahead of the line with the fastest pickers and, when their baskets were full, yell “Pannier!” and then march to each of my team. When the basket on my back was full, it would weigh about 180 pounds. Then I’d have to trudge up or down the slope to the tractor, climb the ladder, and launch myself forward to empty the grapes into a basin. Wary of spending the next two weeks contorted into various letters of the alphabet, I agreed.
With each trip back and forth to the tractor, the burden of my new job became increasingly intense. About halfway through the vines, I was doing wind sprints up and down the field. Having started at the same point as me, my team was now scattered in different places. The elders were smoking the rest of the pack, quite literally. Like chain-smoking groundhogs, they would disappear below the vines, popping their heads up every few minutes to let out clouds of smoke as they surveyed the inexperienced youths they were leaving in their trail of ashes. When I would lose track of them, they hollered at me my own call of “Pannier!”
Then it began to drizzle. As the rain intensified, we all got soaked. My brand-new hiking boots, the latest in footwear technology, could not quite cushion my soles from the jagged stones of the vineyard. With the added weight on my back, I felt every part of the terrain, every uneven bit of footing. With fatigue and discomfort wearing us down, expletives echoed among shouts of instruction.
Back in the vineyards the next morning, with two days of hard labor taking effect, I was feeling the pain. We would stop for a short casse-croûte around 9 am, and then work, while praying for the church bell to ring at midday, signaling lunchtime. At the winery, lunches were simple catered affairs. I made the mistake of asking Guillaume, the head porteur, who had worked harvest with the Lamys for a couple years, how much harder it would get. A true country boy of about my age, he just laughed and said that I’d see after lunch.
I appreciated what he meant when we arrived at Le Banc. Literally a bank of a hill rising above the village, this vineyard is incredibly steep and stony. The sun beat down oppressively. Looking up at the rows of vines, and already sweating, my belly way too full of blanquette de veau, I knew this would be a rough afternoon. Climbing up and down through the vines in the 90-something-degree heat, Guillaume passed by and shouted, “C’est dure!” (It’s hard!) That became the mantra for the rest of harvest.
As time went on, we vendangeurs became bonded in our collective effort. We all felt the same pain, the same stress, and the same yearning for rest. Yet we soldiered on, young and old. I asked Anaïs, a young woman who took a vacation from her job in Paris each year to help out, why she kept coming back.
“You forget the pain,” Anaïs told me. “You only remember the fun and reward of hard work.”
Pain hadn’t stopped René, a retired man of almost 70, from making this his 35th consecutive harvest. He was one of our best, but the work was evident on his body. He was gaunt, with a hunchback and a thick moustache that would have been white if it hadn’t been dyed a sunburst of brown and orange by decades of smoking. For him, harvest was a pilgrimage, a time to come back to the land, a kind of birthright.
For me, harvest was a test of endurance. I haven’t forgotten the pain, not entirely at least. If I do, one look at my mud-crusted boots will remind me in an instant. But now the pain is gone, and I will always have the memories of pushing past my limits and of the support of those who did the same by my side. My time as a vendangeur at Domaine Hubert Lamy showed me the true effort behind the world’s greatest wines and the persevering, rugged folk who make them. It rewarded me with a deeper appreciation for wine, and with honesty and camaraderie that I will never forget.
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Nicolas Capron-Manieux is a native New Yorker who is descended on his father’s side from generations of Burgundians. His career as a sommelier led him to work with stellar wine lists at La Sirena, Pasquale Jones, and most recently, Cote, where he held the post of Head Sommelier. Nowadays he’s finding new avenues in the wine industry, such as pursuing his interest in writing.