First Time Helping with Wine Grape Harvest? Your Questions Answered.
With record harvests predicted this year and at least 80 UK vineyards welcoming volunteer help, isn’t it time you got involved? If you’ve never done it before, you might be a bit hesitant, so here’s our guide to helping you find the best experience and enjoying your day.
Hold on a Minute, can’t Machines do that Job?
Well actually, no. Grapes for English Sparkling Wine are always picked by hand and even where it would be fine for the wines to have machine picked grapes, the size of most English vineyards wouldn’t justify it. In fact, we’re only aware of two harvesting machines in the UK, one at Denbies and one at Buzzard Valley.
But Surely there’s Someone more Qualified than Me?
It’s true that many of the top vineyards will use professional pickers, largely from Eastern Europe, but with a few (and gradually increasing number) from the UK. It’s also true that these pickers will know how to deal with all sorts of different conditions of grapes. However in one field on one day, there will either be what we call “clean” grapes, or a small amount with a particular type of mildew, perhaps. You can easily be briefed on on the things you need to know about for that particular grape variety on that particular day.
The main advantage professional pickers have over the rest of us is speed and the fact that they will turn up and work hard regardless of the conditions – more on both of those later!
I’ve Never Done It Before, What’s a Good Way to Start?
Picking grapes is a serious business and obviously a major contribution to the producer’s income for that year. If you’ve an inclination to try, but don’t feel up to giving it a full day, why not try out a harvest experience?
Several vineyards offer these experience days – you have to pay to go along, but you get the chance to learn a little about how it all works and pick a crate or two, then you enjoy a hearty lunch and maybe a taste of delicious fresh juice from the very grapes you have picked.
One of those on offer this year is at Bluebell Vineyard. It’s £45 for a great day out and is on Sunday 7th October. Why not go along and try it out? (UPDATE: This event now sold out – possibility of another date to come, we’ll keep you posted.)
How Does it Actually Work?
Normally you will be given “snips”, a particular kind of light secateurs, although some of the smaller vineyards may ask you to bring your own if you have them. Some also offer gloves – I quite like latex gloves to avoid getting covered in ripe sticky grape juice and they can also help avoid blisters, but you are unlikely to be working hard enough on your first day for that to be an issue.
You will normally pick directly into your own bucket, which you will empty periodically into crates which have been left spaced up the rows of vines. These crates will then be collected by people who just focus on that task, leaving you to focus on the picking.
Most vineyards will get you picking the same row on the opposite side as someone else – this may be a friend you’ve come with or a complete stranger. Either way, you soon develop a camaraderie, pointing out bunches that are easier for your partner to pick and, on volunteer days at least, there’s usually time for a nice chat too.
Just turn up (on time, please!) for your briefing, a cup of coffee and maybe even a bacon sandwich if you’re lucky. Then get your snips and head out to the row instructed.
What About a Day Out for The Family?
Grape harvest can be an excellent day out for the family and a good number of vineyards offer a “friends and family day” where you can join in on that basis. Pebblebed (where we picked to the sound of a violin and trod grapes afterwards!) near Exeter, Greyfriars near Guildford and Beacon Down north of Eastbourne are just a few perfect examples.
How Do I Learn to Harvest Properly?
If you’re at least averagely fit and healthy, you’ll be fine going somewhere that takes their volunteer harvest days in a more business-like manner.
I would definitely recommend Albury Vineyard where Vineyard Manager Alex Valsecchi (she’s the one in the middle of the front row on the picture above) will have everyone working in a disciplined manner. She has 4 people working a row – one pair at the bottom, the next pair starting a post up. You then stay in your pair and periodically leap-frog the other pair. I’m convinced that this variety of movement is better for your posture and helps keep you going, ensuring that the grapes are all brought in.
Chafor Vineyard welcome volunteers, too. I have picked for them a couple of times, one memorable occasion involving completing picking by the light of head torch, but that’s a story for another day. Dropmore Vineyard are very friendly and offer a delicious lunch, too.
How Many Grapes Should I be Picking?
As a volunteer, no-one is going to be counting how many grapes you pick. The best we’ve heard for professionals is from Giffords Hall in Suffolk, who say that their guys can pick a tonne a day each and owner Linda claims to be able to keep up with them! That’s about 65 of the crates that are normally used to collect grapes from your bucket.
Squerryes kindly (!) sent me out with their Hungarian pickers and I reckon I kept up for an hour, which I was rather proud of. That’s after a couple of harvest days a year for a several years, so you definitely do get better with practice!
Do I need to Bring Anything?
The main thing is to have good footwear, as always in a vineyard – that means practicality and comfort. I’m still looking for a great pair of boots from this country; meanwhile I love my Spanish Panama Jacks. Others will have Wellies (but be careful of getting cold feet in them, maybe up your sock quality!) or if you’re going to be in a vineyard a lot, maybe some Dubarry Country Boots (available for men or women). Definitely worth putting a good pair of boots on your birthday or Christmas list if you’re seriously getting into this lark.
Apart from that, just layers of clothing, with the top layer waterproof – this is the UK, after all! On the subject of rain, it’s not ideal to harvest in the rain, but if you’ve said you’ll go and the producer says the day is going to go ahead, I’m afraid you are honour bound to turn up.
Can I get paid for all this effort?
There are very few vineyards that pay local workers, because of the relatively low wages and need for commitment throughout rain or shine. Those that we are aware of are Rathfinny Estate and Bluebell Vineyard Estates in Sussex and Sharpham Estate in Devon; you’ll need to commit for at least a few days, if not the whole season, if you want to be paid. This is a great way to get into the wine industry, or to find out if vinegrowing or winemaking is the job for you.
What about Food?
Every vineyard I have picked at has provided a coffee and cake interlude (ideally brought out to the vineyard so you’re only away from picking for a short while) and then either a lunch break or a late lunch when you stop. Producers will know from previous experience how long it will take to get that day’s varieties in and will schedule accordingly.
One particularly memorable lunch was during a very cold & rainy pick at Danebury Vineyard (who don’t normally have visitors) – never has a fish & chip van been a more welcome sight.
Some producers also invite you to a harvest supper later in the year, or might offer you a bottle to take away on the day.
Come on then, what’s your Top Tip?
My best tip would be to make friends with a couple of vineyards in your area, You’ll probably be starting fairly early and you’ll certainly feel a few muscles at the end of the day, so a long journey isn’t ideal. Your starting point is taking a look at our list of vineyards looking for volunteers and then click the MAP VIEW link at the top to show them postioned around the country. Then pick a couple of local ones and join their mailing list and / or follow them on social media.
Once you get to know a few vineyards, you’ll find the one that best suits you and vice-versa. Note that some vineyards like Albury and Squerryes have membership schemes and harvest volunteers are drawn from their members; others like Oatley Vineyard and Danebury Vineyards have a small group who come back year after year and the fact that you can fit in is as important as anything else.
So go on then, what are you waiting for? We’d love to hear how you get on.
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