Column: Drinking at Work — an American Harvester in France

Sunday, October 11, 2015
Saint-Prix-les-Arnay, France

Though I can’t see it from here in Burgundy, it is a magical time of year in the Upper Valley. The New England landscape is showing her autumn colors, leaving tourists and natives searching for new ways to say “beautiful.”

When I was growing up in Norwich, my mother would stop on a hike or in the driveway and say to me and my brother, in a voice tinged with gratitude for where she lived, “Boys, people come from all over the world to see this.” Over time, I have learned just how right she was.

These days, when I say I am from Vermont to the people who are discovering the wines of Burgundy on the tours I lead, they say that seeing New England in fall is on their life list. I am humbled and proud when an Australian winemaker, a Chinese woman or a British gentleman validates the place where I grew up.

Here in the vines, another magical season has just concluded. Harvest this year began in late August and ran through mid-September. Winemakers sought thousands of short-term workers to help them get the juicy Chardonnay and Pinot noir grapes to the winery where they could be turned into money in a bottle.

As I had done in 2014, I contacted Jean-Baptiste Cluzeaud, the young man who oversees the harvesting effort for his family-run winery. Based in the town of Volnay, about 10 minutes south of the wine capital of Beaune, Jean-Baptiste, his father, Jean-Claude, and their forbears have been recruiting teams of about 30 harvesters each season since around the French Revolution. They are old school, producing vins de garde, wines meant to be cellared and enjoyed five, 10 or 30 years down the line.

The team this year consisted of French friends of the Cluzeauds who took vacation from their other jobs; retired relatives; and a slew of Polish college girls, who had hitchhiked to make some money and be part of the action. Apparently, there are not enough unemployed French people who want to break their back 10 hours a day cutting grapes to satisfy the demand at this time of year, so Polish, Romanian and other Central European workers fill out the ranks.

The cutters, like me, place bunches of grapes in a black plastic bucket and the porteurs come along and empty it into big plastic crates on a wheelbarrow. When a parcel of vines has been harvested, the grapes return to the winery and begin the transformation from plant to alcoholic beverage within hours.

The work, though physically demanding, is simple and rhythmic, and I am surprised that more French people don’t jump at the chance to help out. Then again, it could be a problem of communication.

French winemakers advertise thusly: “Seeking harvesters from about September 5. Small winery in Nuits-Saint-Georges. No lodging, no food. Opportunity for good wages for motivated workers.”

Read between the lines: No perks, but we pay by the weight, so if you work like a dog, you might make more money than if you were working at another place that pays the hourly minimum wage. Not ambiance conviviale.

By contrast, I would write Jean-Baptiste’s want ad this way: “Beginners welcome in the harvest of premier wines of Burgundy! Family atmosphere including direct contact with the winemaker; 10 a.m. casse-croûte featuring red and white wines, saucission, Camembert cheese, baguettes, chocolate and water; two-hour lunch break with unlimited cocktails, wine and moonshine, all to wash down a meal of appetizer, main course (Burgundy beef, anyone?), cheese, dessert and coffee. Remarkable views of UNESCO World Heritage Site guaranteed. Paycheck and bottle of wine upon conclusion.”

That is some tempting language, and so what if it avoids the truth that you will likely cut your fingers (the sign of a good harvester in the region is someone who cuts himself seven times); that you will be sore in your knees, your back and your cutting hand (my wife, who joined me in the vines, proved to be an ambidextrous cutter); and that you will likely need to urinate in the vines at some point, preferably in a parcel you have already harvested.

It felt good to be part of the team, to do demanding physical labor and let my mind drift over the path that had led me to here. While I am not a farmer and doubt I ever will be, at the end of harvest I felt the satisfaction of a noble profession.

Cutting grapes in Burgundy taught me some things. First, I was impressed by how a group of humans can tackle a huge amount of work and conquer it. Second, I learned how satisfying it is to do something as simple as snipping fruit, knowing that eventually the effort would turn into nectar that people would drink for years to come as they celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and weddings. Third, I discovered the value of patience. This is a world where one works for an entire year to coax scraggly plants into producing berries that eventually make people happy. Not today, not tomorrow, but in a future measured in years, not Tweets, likes, favorites or any other of the buzzwords of early 21st century life. It felt good and it felt honest.

Lastly, I learned that, sometimes, it is OK to smell like wine at work.

Mark Lilienthal was a speechwriter for former Massachusetts governor Deval L. Patrick. He posts regularly about living in France at

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