Not long into my stint as a wine grape picker in Alsace -- about 20 minutes, to be exact -- I began to wonder whether I would come out of it whole.
I had come to the tiny wine-making village of Wolxheim, France (pop. 870), to join the grape harvest -- la vendange -- of a local winery in early October.
Anyone, I figured, could tour this gorgeous wine country west of the Rhine, with its storybook villages and rolling vineyards, the usual way: motoring among local winemakers and stopping to sample the single-grape Alsatian wines -- dry white Riesling and pinot blanc, perfumed pinot Tokay, sweet muscat and Gewuerztraminer, and light, red pinot noir.
On this trip, I'd planned to do as many French people do in fall: take a vacation from computers, telephones and modern life to experience the real wine life in the provincial world of rural France. There would be no three-star dining, no thermal baths, no wine-tasting seminars. With no experience and no real idea of what to expect, I'd committed to a week of eight-hour days of backbreaking work, leavened only by harvest camaraderie.
Alsace's wine country -- nestled between the Vosges mountains and France's German border, more than 275 miles due east of Paris -- is simply one of the most beautiful stretches of vineyards anywhere. Its vibrantly green hills are dotted with Hansel and Gretel villages that on many mornings in fall are draped in misty, low-lying fog. I stayed in a pedestrian but functional hotel in the town of Molsheim, which has a large square with shops and restaurants that serve Alsatian cuisine -- seemingly the richest combinations that France and Germany can offer -- with carafes of local wine.
I found winemaker Jean-Bernard Siebert, who has about 16 acres of vineyards in and around Wolxheim, through my friend Daniel, who was born in Alsace and has worked many a harvest for his friend Siebert. Experience wasn't necessary; anyone who can safely operate a pair of gardening shears, bend to lift buckets all day long and communicate basic ideas in French or German is technically qualified.
Work began at 8 a.m., when some 10 to 15 of us -- young and old, men and women, professionals and provincials, students and retirees, but most all Alsatian -- crammed into a panel van with benches made from wood planks and milk crates. On my first day, we were driven just outside town to a neatly ordered slope with rows of pinot noir, and each of us was issued a pair of clippers and a bucket.
The harvest foreman, Dominique, was a 48-year-old industrial engineer who uses accumulated time off and some of his five weeks of French vacation time to harvest grapes for a full month every year. He assigned us our cutting formations: Two people generally worked each side of a vine row, with another pair working the opposite side of the same vines. The main idea is to clip the fist-size bunches of grapes from the vine without cutting off your fingers or those of the picker across from you. We then dropped the grapes in our buckets and, when the buckets were full, passed them underneath the vines to a central row, where a small tractor waited to take the grapes to a trailer parked in the road.
I followed the others in setting to work -- moving up and down at odd angles to collect grape bunches, most of which seemed to be either at waist level or hanging just a few inches off the ground.
"Watch the leaves," Dominique warned in French as he observed my bucket filling up with enough fall color to make an autumn window display. Grape leaves, I learned, need to be pulled out, particularly in wet years like last year, when the vines were treated for early signs of damp-related diseases.
"Watch the fingers, too," a male voice said on the other side of the vine, "we've already had two injured this week."
After a few minutes, my bucket was full and I placed it -- loaded with about 20 pounds of grapes -- underneath the vine. A hand from the next row pulled it away, and a few seconds later an empty bucket -- kicked like a soccer ball -- came flying back my way.
A few buckets into the day, I felt my back start to seize up.
Let me say here that I consider myself more fit than most 46-year-old men. I play tennis, ski, hike and swim. But nothing I'd ever done before could quite prepare me for the numbing ache that seemed to crawl up from the ball of my right foot and nest deep down in some nexus of muscle, nerve and flesh in my lower back.
I let out a groan -- the first of several involuntary sounds of pain I would make that first day.
"Ca va?" A voice from the other side of the vine asked if I was all right.
"Oui!" I lied, with gusto.
Finding the Cure
After we finished the first vine row, there was just enough time to straighten up and take a glance around at the sun-splashed rows of vines that led up to a golden statue of the Good Lord, hands outstretched, at the crest of a nearby hill. Then it was time to descend the slope and attack more rows of vines.
As the morning wore on, the work picked up, and so did the chatter among the vines. The first thing that came as a shock was that my fellow pickers were weaving in and out of two languages: French and an odd German dialect, which, I learned, was Alsatian.
The second thing that struck me was how downright chipper these people were for a Monday morning.
Florence, a mother in her forties who usually works in a bank, was enthusiastically describing in painstaking detail a recipe for an onion tart. Arnold, a retired geography teacher, was talking about his passion, local historical research. Frantz, a local jack-of-all-trades in his fifties, simply amused himself with the idea of an American picking pinot in their midst.
"You're a real American?" Frantz asked me in French.
"The real Americans are on reservations," interjected Bernard, a vacationing security guard, from two vine rows away.
"Do they pick grapes by hand in California?" Frantz asked me.
I said that I thought California grapes were harvested mostly by migrant workers and machines.
"That's the U.S.A. -- mecanisation," Frantz said.
"Sterilisation," someone rhymed.
"Purification," Frantz laughed. "Pasteurisation . . . homogenisation."
Then, suddenly, miraculously, the work came to a stop.
"Time for a drink," Dominique called in French.
It was 10:30 a.m., and everyone gathered around the tractor. Right there on the hood of the Supertigre 7700, Dominique laid out two rows of glass tumblers. Into these he first poured out small doses of red cassis syrup. Then he pulled the cork out of a wine bottle and filled the glasses to their brims with pinot blanc.
It would be the first of many morning cocktail breaks that week. We exchanged our saluts and drank. Cans of pate and country terrines were opened. Butcher paper was unfurled revealing two varieties of dried sausage, which was cut up with pocketknives. Loaves of bread were passed around and torn up by hand. We devoured it all and drained our glasses.
At this point it became clear to me that in spite of the pain and what California agricultural researchers call "high-risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)," I was going to have a great time and would get by -- the old-fashioned way.
A Bargain Vacation
At noon, we climbed back in the panel van, which carted us down the hill to Siebert's winery, housed in a flour mill purchased by his ancestors from Benedictine monks in the 16th century.
I had visited the winery the previous year and for 12 months toyed with the idea of joining the harvest in Wolxheim, whose claim to winemaking fame is that Napoleon cited the Rieslings as among his favorite wines in the Empire.
While faster and cheaper harvesting machines are picking more and more of the wine harvest in Alsace and everywhere, some small and high-quality producers still pick by hand. And because the wine landscape is made up of so many thousands of small producers, grape-picking in France doesn't have the labor-camp image it has in the United States. Harvesters are paid a percentage above French minimum wage (about $9 an hour), with meal costs and any lodging charges subtracted. Among my fellow vendangeurs, most said they were doing it for the outdoors experience and the ambiance of the harvest.
Visiting Americans can't legally work in France, but there is nothing to prevent visitors from doing what I did -- volunteering and soaking up the atmosphere, not to mention wine and meals. Considering that some British tour companies actually charge tourists to pick grapes as part of wine country tours, I feel as though I got a bargain.
Siebert is about as down-to-earth as winemakers get. During harvest week, he had the rumpled, unshaven look of a man who stays up to the wee hours and sleeps in his jeans and sweat shirt. Indeed, that week Siebert worked long hours in the cellar, operating the modern presses and centrifuges that extract the juice and then filling the steel fermentation tanks. At lunchtime in the winery's modest dining room-bar-kitchen-office, he joked with workers and sat at the head of the table.
Lunch was served by a chef, Gerard, who was on vacation from his job as a cook at a local retirement home. That first day's lunch began with a plate including a slab of pate surrounded by a trio of shredded vegetable salads. White wine was poured from bottles bearing no labels.
When I asked what we were drinking, Siebert said it was a house blend of several varietals. He was cut off by one of my fellow pickers, a white-haired man with a thick moustache who suggested that Siebert should not divulge too much to me. After all, what would keep me from going to California and planting vines there? This was the first of two occasions on which someone would raise the suspicion that I was an American spy.
Siebert, disregarding the warning, explained that he experimented with machine harvesting in 1998 but that the machines couldn't distinguish between ripe and rotten grapes and "the result was no good."
"Yes, I know they say they have improved the machines now, but I just don't believe in them," Siebert added. "It's personal. I am anti-machine."
For the main course, we ate family-style portions of grilled white sausages and fries. Then came platters of fruit and cheese, including the local favorite, Alsatian muenster. For the finale, a liter bottle of transparent liquid was set on the table along with dainty stemmed shot glasses.
"Mirabelle" was hand-scrawled on a small white label, indicating that the contents were yellow plum liqueur, also known as "Le whiskey d'Alsace."
As both the new guy and, as far as anyone knew, the first American to pick grapes in Wolxheim, I felt it my duty to down the glass in one easy gulp. It sent a warm glow from stomach through my chest and up to the follicles on top of my head.
It was time to go back to work.
Baptism by Pinot
"I remember the first day I did the vendange -- I was ready to cry," Florence, the bank worker, explained to me through the vines on Day 2. "But every day is better."
That morning I'd awoken feeling nearly paralyzed and crawled out of my bed for an ibuprofen. I was hoping that Florence, who was in the midst of her fourth harvest, was right.
The following morning, I arose from bed and could stand straight. After three days, I no longer needed my morning pain pill.
At the same time, something else changed. By midweek, I was no longer the American curiosity but "Robess" -- my name in Alsatian.
My last hours of work that week were particularly difficult. That afternoon we attacked a long, steep ascent of about 200 yards of pinot blanc in the rain. We worked without break for three hours -- tired, muddy and straining as each water-sopped bucket grew heavier than the last. The idea of a luxury wine tour was sounding not so bad.
As we finished work, the rain stopped. Fog blanketed the floor of the valley below and the sun broke though the clouds above.
Back at the winery, I was saying my goodbyes to the team members when I felt myself lifted up high by several hands from behind. I flew up to the lip of a trailer of grapes and was dumped in and rolled around. The juice went everywhere -- burning my eyes and sticking to my skin.
Baptism by grapes is a tradition here.
Having experienced it, I can now tell you: Diving face-first into about three tons of pinot changes a man. Raising a glass will never be the same.
Robert V. Camuto, a writer living in the South of France, is a frequent contributor to Travel.