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5 Things You Need To Know Before Working a Harvest in France

5 Things You Need To Know Before Working a Harvest in France

Harvest in France

For some wine lovers, there comes a time when passion extends beyond the glass or cellar. Perhaps that means weekend winery visits or pursuing wine studies. But some grow tired of the tasting room crowds or can’t muster opening another textbook. Working a harvest, particularly in France, where wine culture reigns supreme, is a bucket list experience for many.

Although most wineries usually have a group of year-round employees, everything cranks into high gear during harvest, requiring additional hands on deck. In instances where everything reaches optimal ripeness and needs picking at the same time, it’s essential to have extra people.

Combining the peak period in a vine’s growth cycle with a trip to wine country is a tempting proposition. Thanks to partnerships between countries, temporary, seasonal work in France is closer than you think. For example, organizations such as ANEFAPôle Emploi, and Picking Jobs can be valuable resources for finding a position in France.

Of course, knowing what you’re getting yourself into ahead of time helps you get the most out of the experience. Here are five things to know before heading abroad.

Payment and Provisions Vary Significantly

Living conditions vary widely depending on the winery. Some contracts stipulate the inclusion of room and board deducted from pay. Alternately, others pay workers an hourly minimum wage, known as Smic (€10.57 as of 2022). Setting the conditions of a contract from the outset will help avoid a nasty surprise. 

Lodging can be as simple as an area to pitch a tent or a dorm-style room shared with other harvesters. It won’t likely be luxurious, but you’ll be glad to have a horizontal surface to rest on at the end of each grueling day.

Food provisions are also up to each winery, and the quality and offerings can differ greatly. At worst, lunch might be a dry baguette with ham. But some might provide a mid-morning snack of cheese, pâté, bread, chocolate, and wine — this is France, after all — followed by a warm lunch with more wine. These convivial moments make the physically demanding job more fulfilling, so tracking down a winery that provides all the goods is worth finding.

As an alternative to case-by-case contracts, seek a work-stay exchange via WWOOFHelpX, and Workaway. Payment is less likely in these instances, but food and housing are typical. 

It’s Hard and Repetitive Work

Sure, it’s not the Olympics, but picking grapes all day is no joke. Work starts early in the morning, often with only one day off per week. While any wine lover will learn to appreciate the labor that goes into every bottle, it is unquestionably exhausting.

You don’t have to start a fitness regimen to work a harvest, but you’ll have an easier time if you’re used to raising your heartbeat. Depending on the vineyard, workers squat repeatedly for hours a day, day after day. And don’t forget, some vineyards grow quality grapes on steep sloping terrains, which adds the unique challenge of squatting uphill.

The Aches and Pains Are Temporary

The consequences of crouching over vines to snip off bunches of grapes are quick to present themselves. While some might be glad for an excuse to develop the quad muscles, back and shoulder muscles are less forgiving. The constant repetitive motion and awkward bends to get those hard-to-reach grapes will quickly translate into sharp twinges of pain. Don’t underestimate the power of a good stretch several times a day.

“A major lesson learned from my first harvest: bring knee pads,” says Franco-Ontarian Mélanie Courtemanche-Dancause, who worked a few seasons in Burgundy at Domaine Giboulot. Instead of having to squat repeatedly, kneeling allows for some pressure relief. “Nevertheless, sore muscles are part of the deal, so Tiger Balm comes in handy,” she adds, “remind yourself that the pain only lasts the first three days, so keep at it!”

Nature Is in Complete Control

The entire timeline of harvest depends heavily on nature. Vines move through their growth cycle based on seasonal conditions, and start dates can shift during unseasonal bouts of hot or cold temperatures. Myriam Réty organizes a harvest exchange program through the Fédération France-Québec, sending dozens of Canadians to France every year. Such a task requires coordination, yet when participants ask for specific dates, Réty can’t confirm until a short time before. 

“It varies as a function of the region, the grape’s maturity, and consequently the meteorological conditions,” Réty explains. Thankfully, vines can provide clues, “harvest takes place 100 days after the first flowering,” says Réty. Once the vine flowers, the fruit is soon on its way, and you can start looking at plane tickets.

Nature doesn’t stop its activity once harvest starts. Ideally, picking begins when the grapes are ripe, but unfavorable weather conditions may temporarily halt the harvesting process. It’s not uncommon for rain to delay picking since it dilutes the grapes, causing sugar and acid levels to fall out of balance. Until the weather improves, a couple of days off gives you the perfect opportunity to check out the surrounding areas.”

Harvest Culture Is Its Own Phenomenon

Working a harvest guarantees a multicultural mix. Many Europeans make their way around the continent, picking up seasonal jobs, but working harvest is a critical opportunity for others. In 2021, The UN Refugee Agency reported that French vineyards began collaborating with organizations to employ refugees. The vineyard’s natural cycle doesn’t stop because of labor shortages; this initiative has been mutually beneficial. 

A unique camaraderie emerges among harvesters regardless of their origin, age, or reasons for working at a vineyard in France. Harvest culture is incomparable, from encouraging words amidst the vines to engaging conversations with people whose paths you might have never crossed.

And if you’re lucky, a celebration caps harvest completion, sometimes with a feast, wine, music, and dancing. It’s a fix on French culture you’ll surely never forget.

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