About three years ago, I was invited by a family friend to visit them and work in Champagne during the grape harvest. You don’t ever get that kind of opportunity twice, so I quickly said yes and started making my travel arrangements. The harvest really depends on the weather, so we were really only able to pin down dates about a week or so before I had to leave. Once everything was finalized, I moved back from Canada, spent about a week at home, and then was off again on another adventure.
I’ve always appreciated wine, and Champagnes and sparklings are by far my favorites, so I was really looking forward to experiencing firsthand how it was made. The very first day I got there, we drove through Reims and Epernay a bit and visited Dom Perignon’s tomb. We took it easy the first day because all the fun would start bright and early the next day.
Each day would start at approximately 6 am, when we would suit up and put on our boots and gloves. We would drive out to different vineyards every day to pick different grape varietals, including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I was under the impression that you pick the grapes like you would pick store bought grapes off the stem to eat. But you actually use trimming shears to cut each bunch off the vine so you don’t harm the skins at all (and it makes the whole process a million times faster).
After we worked for a solid hour or two, it was then time for my favorite part of the day. We got to take a small break and eat a breakfast that consisted of chocolate, bread, salami and Champagne. I’m pretty convinced that I could eat that for every meal and be perfectly content. This also taught me that it’s perfectly okay to start drinking before 10 am.
Every day, I worked alongside French gypsies. Apparently they would travel around and find odd jobs to make money. I’m sure that they had plenty of interesting stories to tell. Too bad I couldn’t understand them. They had two dogs with them that would run free throughout the vines with us during the day.
Many of the grapes we harvested went towards the family’s champagne, Alain Vincey, which is now available in multiple wine shops throughout Virginia. But many of the grapes are used in Bollinger Champagne as well. I believe the grapes I harvested will be in next year’s vintage, so I enjoy telling people that my hands may be in their drinks if they ever have a bottle of Bollinger.
I would have lunch and dinner with the family every day and found that I really enjoyed French cooking (Beef Bourgogne being my favorite). One day, as I was eating, the grandfather asked if I wanted to know what we all were eating. I didn’t and told him he could tell me once I was done. The texture was a little odd and I had a strong suspicion that I was eating tongue, but I did not want that being confirmed. While we were eating, conversation would flow around me and I got really good at smiling and nodding and looking like I actually understood what was going on. By the end of the week, I felt like I had become part of this little, French family.
This was probably one of the most difficult experiences I’ve had, but the most rewarding as well. Spending eight hours bent over every day really took a toll on my body and by the end of the five days, I was so exhausted that I was cutting my own hand with the trimming shears and not the vine. It’s still all very dreamlike to me and doesn’t even feel like it really happened most days. My only regret was not knowing the language, but I believe that made the trip feel a little more surreal. Champagne is a beautiful place to visit and if you get the chance to help with the harvest, even for a day, do it. It was amazing to see all the hard work that goes into making one of my favorite things and even better to be a part of it all.