The Harvest of Dreams – View from behind the Snips
I cannot now recall how long before the 2014 harvest it was that the word “dream” started to be used, but it was certainly weeks, if not months, before the first grape was picked. After the poor harvest of 2011, the abject disaster of 2012 and a reasonable crop in 2013, excitement built throughout 2014.
Vines woke up from their winter sleep and passed safely through the next couple of months with little or no frost damage. Next up was the landmark of Wimbledon fortnight when the tiny flowers open; this passed without the dreaded rain washing all the pollen away, to everyone’s relief. The fruit set and the grapes grew and grew until they threatened to weigh down the branches and talk was of “green harvest”, lightening the load on the vines so that all of the grapes would be able to get enough sun and nutrition to fully ripen. In fact the only spot of negativity all year was a little mildew on susceptible varieties right at the end of the season.
It was probably the time around Wimbledon when the cautious optimism of wine producers in the UK bubbled up to something more. Soon the press got wind and built up to almost fever pitch as results came in from competitions at home and abroad, heralding the quality of wines already produced and the possibility of a huge harvest of high quality grapes became a distinct probability. No-one in the industry was counting their chickens, though, and even in just my second summer of taking a real interest, I knew that it’s not a good harvest until all the grapes are safely in the winery.
All grapes for quality sparkling wines are hand-picked and small vineyards pick all their grapes by hand, so that covers most wine-growing in the UK, a fair few hectares!
I had been surprised to learn about the joys of grape picking in 2013 and had travelled widely to get 3 different experiences at Pebblebed, Bridewell Organic and Albury. I had talked to people and learned that the big producers have teams of professional pickers – the best of whom can pick a tonne per day each! Some have tried and failed to use volunteer pickers, who didn’t turn up when the weather was poor and gave up when the going got tough. Many, though, still rely on volunteers, some open to all who hear about it, others who have a carefully nurtured group just a few degrees of separation out from friends and family who know what to expect and can be relied upon.
As last summer went on, I worked hard to share the list of vineyards needing help on my website www.WineCellarDoor.co.uk and wondered which to join in myself. I didn’t need to wonder long, hearing of my interest, the invitations rolled in and I ended up picking at Danebury Vineyards, Bluebell Estate, Greyfriars and Albury Organic.
From these experiences, here are my top tips.
No. 1: Grape harvest is satisfyingly hard labour
It’s tough enough to give a great feeling of satisfaction at the end of the day, but no worse than that. Just remember that you’re contributing to someone’s livelihood, so you have to keep on going. If you have an iffy back, make sure you go somewhere that gives you buckets to pick into, which you empty into strategically placed crates, rather than having to move crates yourself.
No. 2: Check out your local vineyard
Picking might start early and a heavy crop or few volunteers may make for a long day, so you don’t necessarily want to add a couple of hours travel to each end of the day. We’ve counted nearly 40 producers all around the country who welcome help with harvest – find your local one at www.winecellardoor.co.uk/category/Help+with+the+Harvest. Once you have chosen a likely vineyard or two, follow them on Facebook or Twitter or just keep an eye on their website – weather close to the time will determine the actual picking date, so you need to be alert for it.
No. 3: Go there, do it, wear the t-shirt!
Sometimes you literally do get to wear the t-shirt – having seen pictures of some very smartly attired pickers in France, I was thrilled to get my first harvest t-shirt at Greyfriars.
No. 4: Be careful not to cut your fingers
Some vineyards ask you to bring your own secateurs, others provide you with “snips” – you’ll normally get a safety briefing, but someone almost always cuts themselves. Keep concentrating and make sure it’s not you.
No. 5: Wear sensible clothing
Layer up from t-shirt to toasty warm and include a waterproof layer. Organising a big tasting a couple of days before the harvest at Danebury had taken up most of my attention and a glorious sunrise on the appointed day meant that lack of headspace for planning and my excessive optimism left me ill-prepared, clothing-wise. It was my own silly fault, but a mistake I won’t be making again.
No. 6: Paid for “harvest experiences” can be good value
I was lucky enough to be invited to Bluebell’s first open day, which was a Harvest Experience, as their guest. The amount of picking we did was a little less than at my other harvest days, but was by no means trivial. We were taught in some detail about how to pick and the lunch and tour of winery meant that the £20 charge would be money well spent for seeing what harvest really means and learning about wine-making, not to mention having a great day out, too.
No. 7: You can have an amazingly intimate conversation with a stranger through a vine
No, not like that! Where the picking is well-organised, there are normally two people picking opposite one another to make sure no grapes get missed. While you are both working hard and occasionally collaborating to retrieve particularly pesky bunches, there is plenty of time to talk. There’s something about talking with someone that you cannot see that can lead to a quicker rapport and a level of conversation that you would not normally have with a stranger. A couple of my harvest days were greatly enhanced by discussing life, the world and almost everything with team-mates through the vine.
No. 8: Food rarely tastes as good as when it’s been earned by manual labour
The fish & chip van at Danebury was inspired, barbecues are more common and very welcome, too. As I found last year, they do a splending hog roast at Pebblebed. A couple of producers take a real pride in their harvest catering, but it will take more than a bottle of my favourite English wine to tell which ones – suffice it to say that I’m hoping to get invited to join their exclusive volunteer lists next year!
No. 9: The views are amazing
If you get time to look up, or more likely at the end of the day, the view from the top of a vineyard is often stunning. I particularly enjoyed a sunny early evening at Greyfriars looking over vines that we had just picked.
No. 10: Fresh grape juice tastes like nothing on earth
A few vineyards will make a couple of jugs of fresh grape juice within minutes of them being picked. It’s so delicious that you briefly (but only briefly!) wonder why it needs to be made into wine. We tasted the juice at Bluebell and it was just heavenly – fortunately Kevin is such a good winemaker that we decided to let him have them anyway as we are pretty sure that he will turn them into something even better.
No. 11: Several vineyards have their harvest blessed
Whether you are deeply religious, or look upon it more as a cultural tradition, the blessing of a harvest is moving and heart-warming and really brings home how much of a marginal wine-producing area the UK is. The local vicar came to Danebury and led us in prayer and I know that Wiston Estate have their harvest blessed, too.
No. 12: A little bit of discipline goes a long way
Some producers enforce quite strict discipline – Alex Valsecchi at Albury Organic is very firm about how to pick – I’m convinced that her method of having 2 opposing pairs of people picking each row, leap-frogging one another every couple of posts not only minimises the number of grapes missed, but that stretch and walk reduces tired muscles, too. Other producers, like Greyfriars, regard their volunteer harvest as a family day, so it’s all rather more relaxed. It’s up to the producer to pick how they wish, so if as a volunteer you have strong views, find one that works the way you prefer.
So there you go, a quick guide to the life of a volunteer picker. And the best reward of all? There is nothing like tasting a wine that you have picked grapes for, it makes me smile just thinking of it now. Of course, being a relatively new picker, I’ve so far only tasted still wines that I have helped to bring in the grapes for. When alchemy has turned the harvest of dreams into English Sparkling wine, I think I’m going to be smiling quite a lot.
FEATURED / PINNED POST
Use our map to find your local vineyards, a great place to meet that friend you've been meaning to catch up with, somewhere to hold your next business meeting...