By Ellen Stillman Thomas
Special to The Citizen
Wine harvest season is approaching!
A day in the vineyards harvesting grapes with the locals in Germany can be an exhilarating experience or an utter disaster. Wondering what makes the difference? Well, as in most things in life (and especially while living in Europe!) your experience depends on advance planning, preparation and setting your expectations properly. Don’t forget that this is hard labor on steep hillsides, but it’s also a unique and wonderful cultural experience that is priceless.
The harvest start time varies in September, just as Weindorf (the wine village festival) kicks off annually in downtown Stuttgart, and usually lasts 5-6 weeks. Once the harvest begins, vintners give 24-48 hours notice in advance of each time they need help. These are farmers with crops, so it is totally dependent on the weather and state of the crops. Interested volunteers can connect with their local area vintners, or an easier way – search for an organized harvest tour.
Here is a checklist to ensure your day in the vineyards is stellar:
-Write down the address and any other details (perhaps log it on your smartphone) and add at least 30 minutes extra to your schedule in case you get lost, your train is delayed or if you are driving, you get stuck in traffic.
-Having a fully charged phone can make or break the day, so be sure your cell phone is fully charged in case you need to communicate (and so you can properly document with lots of pictures).
-Dress in layers and wear waterproof non-slip shoes or be prepared to possibly be cold and/or have wet, muddy feet. The dew lingers on chilly fall mornings, but things usually dry up and warm up as the day progresses.
-Carry a backpack to stash everything you’ll want to bring.
-Bring garden gloves if you have them (buy them if you don’t or you may have very purple, sticky hands). You can find inexpensive ones at a local garden/outdoor store.
-Tissues and a couple small zip-locks (there are no toilets when we are out in the fields, enough said). There are, however, usually some bushes behind which you can sneak for some privacy. Remember to put your used tissues in a small zip-lock and stash in your backpack for later disposal.
-Snacks and water (you’ll need to fuel and hydrate to keep up your energy). Lunch sure seems a long way off when you start early and are putting in a hard morning’s work on steep, slippery hillsides.
-Band-Aids and anti-bacterial cream just in case. Those cutting sheers are very sharp!
-A plastic bag if you want to bring some grapes home.
-Wet-wipes to clean your hands.
Plan to stay the whole day. But be ready to be OK with it if your shift ends after a couple hours or lasts longer than expected. Shifts usually start between 8-9:30 a.m. depending on the vintner and can be cancelled at the last minute due to weather. There is no set finish time – you work until all the grapes are picked which sometimes takes just a few hours, or a full day – again, depending on the vintner, variety of grape, and also the weather. If you leave early, everyone else has to work longer to make up for one pair of hands less.
Most vintners do not speak English, so there may be a lot of smiles and pointing. They may also not have a lot of time to spend with you, as they will likely be managing multiple crews in different vineyards. Rarely in this region are all the vineyards on consecutive plots of land. The original vineyards were passed down from father to sons so they were split up depending on how many sons and then perhaps sold. Sometimes a vintner will rent vineyards if they need a certain grape variety, can’t afford to buy the land or there isn’t any land to buy. Be ready to jump into a van or on a tractor for a ride to the next location (great photo opp!).
Depending on the vineyard, a home-cooked Swabian lunch may be served in the vineyards, at their home or at the winery around noon, but you might be delayed if a specific vineyard is not finished before moving to a different area. It’s not fancy food, but it is filling and delicious. There is usually plenty of wine on the table for you to enjoy if you aren’t driving. It’s a fun opportunity to try some different wines, but keep in mind as you contemplate filling your glass, that you have another few hours to pick grapes in the afternoon and you may feel sleepy after a big lunch and wine. Offer to help, if it is appropriate, setting the table, serving the food and/or clearing the plates. Be sure to greet the hostess/cook/spouse of the vintner when you arrive, as well as compliment the food and say “danke” when you leave.
Know that you will probably be very tired at the end of the day, even if you are normally active and fit. It’s helpful to get a good night’s sleep the night before and to stretch before and after your harvest shift. You probably don’t want to plan any special activity that evening besides a nice hot bath with some salts when you get home.
Introduce yourself to the vintner when you arrive saying your name clearly and speak slowly if speaking in English. Shake their hand. Thank whoever serves you for lunch. Be sure to thank the vintner at the end of the day and shake their hand again – unless you have really bonded, in which case, you’ll want to kiss them on both cheeks.
A nice idea is always to bake something for the vintner’s family, or bring something American for a snack or dessert to share at lunch.
You will be with (depending on the winery) between 2-20 or more Germans who are friends and family, all pitching in with good humor to help bring in the harvest. Remember to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to be a good ambassador and get to know the people you will be picking with. Some may be retirees, some may be very young or in-between and they may speak zero to very good English. Make an effort to speak some German with them and to interact rather than just with your fellow Americans. It will enrich your experience exponentially.
Some vintners also don’t mind if you bring well behaved children. Just be sure to keep an eagle eye on them. The shears are very sharp and it also could be a long day for them.
The bottom line is that you will have a fabulous time picking grapes and making lifetime memories with new friends.
About the Author: When Ellen isn’t picking grapes or making friends in the vineyards, she organizes historical tours and wine tastings in and around Esslingen as well as boutique food and wine tours in Europe and South America.
Article for informational purposes only. No Federal Endorsement Implied.