It wasn’t long after the pandemic took hold that life started to drastically shift. As a nation we watched incredulously as China, followed by Italy were smeared by COVID-19 cases, warning us of the inevitable, yet we remained steadfast in denial. We were the audience of the Lumiere brother’s first motion picture, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, except nobody imagined the train was real. For a country enthralled with entertainment, this would have been a good time to let ourselves be swept away. But our suspended disbelief wasn’t in our favour, and we took the hit hard.

New York was the first epicentre for the virus in the US. I was working in wholesale wine import and distribution, for a small company based in Manhattan. My account base was 90% on premise fine dining restaurants- in other words, I lost nearly all of my business. It trickled out, to be sure, but I saw the end coming and realised I needed to start making plans. By the time the company let me go, I wasn’t surprised- in fact since it was commissioned work I was only regretful I hadn’t been on unemployment sooner. Earlier in the year, the government had approved a $600/week additional PUI under the CARES Act, an unprecedented approach for the US. But it ended shortly after I was enrolled and I started to worry how I would cover my rent.

There was nothing to do. I lost my job, there were no prospects, and life was unaffordable. Just as I was getting approved for Medicaid, a friend of mine told me about an opportunity to work the wine harvest in Burgundy. Normally this was an exclusive arrangement between approved Michelin restaurant wine directors, sommeliers and a private French export company. I was neither a somm nor had I worked with this company. But given the circumstances, most Americans were no longer able to travel abroad without specific justification. Having dual citizenship at this moment became my golden ticket. I had never really used my other passport- it was a reminder of my inner conflict about family and loss. But ten years working in the wine trade and I hadn’t worked a harvest or been to Burgundy. This was my chance. Without really knowing what I was getting into or for how long, I booked a flight to Paris.

Day One

I arrived in France with a carry-on suitcase. The first thing I did was eat a croissant. The second thing was get tested (at CDG, for free). There is nothing more dissimilar than talking about the harvest season and working a harvest. On the very first day, I snipped the tip of my ring finger clean to the bone. I was trying to keep up and I didn’t know what I was doing. I tried to ignore it by wrapping vine leaves around, but determined it was pretty bad when the bleeding seeped through almost instantly. I ran down to the base of the row where the vigneron himself was monitoring our progress and showed him the blood. “C’est pas possible!” and he turned and walked in the opposite direction. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, especially creating an impression as the white American girl who gets injured the first day of work. But the vigneron’s daughter fixed me up with an assortment of disinfectant, sterile pads and bandaids from the van, telling me “Ca va aller, ça arrive à tous”. By her swift bandaging I could tell this was a common occurence.

Out the door and in the vineyard picking grapes by 6:00am. It was already getting chilly in the vineyards and sometimes at daybreak the dew was partially frozen. But the beauty of waking up with the sunrise, feeling it warm your face as you move between rows of vines, quickly became my favourite part of the day. In exchange for room and board, I worked nearly 12 hour days in the Cote de Beaune: premier cru vineyards of Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny as well as Volnay and Santenay. There were a few days in Gevrey-Chambertin too. Some of the parcels were a 16th of a hectare while others nearly a whole. I tasted the grape ripeness, their variation from parcel to parcel, measuring density, quality, soil, exposure.

Burgundy, I realised, is an industry. After all, the hype of terroir, regional history, the distinguished character of each Domaine… is all very French, and has become very American too, in the world of haute commerce. This is not to downplay the efforts or quality of the region, but as someone whose interest had been sourcing wild, minimal intervention produce, this region is very domesticated. The land itself is gentle rolling hills with many long, flat stretches of vineyards. I quickly learned these flat stretches make it extra difficult on your back as you reach downward, about mid-thigh height for grape clusters sandwiched between dense leave clusters. It’s much easier to pick at an angle. You find creative ways to angulate your body, whose alternative negative effects suggest the proper way to save your back remains to be seen. The most successful method was taught to me by a Belgian scientist in his 50’s who despite being retired, enjoyed doing the harvest as a yearly ritual. He showed me that wearing kneepads and then kneeling with one leg forward and the other behind keeps your lower back out of the equation. That advice saved me from what would have surely been a dislocated disc.

The Power of the Human Heart

The harvest team consisted of a group of hired hands from multiple regions and countries. Especially places like Burgundy where time is of the essence and there’s a lot of ground to cover, the groups can be pretty large and are generally cheap labour from elsewhere. The family members usually head the teams and oversee that the bunches are picked properly and nothing is missed. There are designated “pannier”, interchangeable word for the person who carries an oversized basket over on their back, walking down the row periodically to collect the pickings from your small bucket. Our group was a mix of Sudanese immigrants, hippies from Ardeche, Italian backpackers, high school kids from Beaune, some local families, and a few old men who adored the harvest so much they’d been doing it over 40 years (a Spaniard and the Belgian).

Most days were spent listening and asking questions, as we moved in tandem through the vineyard. Far from the demonstrative nature of city life, it was refreshing to be around so many readily genuine people. Despite what anyone was going through (being an illegal immigrant, homeless, poor, without family) everyone was filled with strength and found any excuse to share joy. Our group became a community who looked after each other and shared in the waves of the work. This carried with me, and I didn’t feel so alone.

Unlocking the Past

A little over a month later, I left Burgundy for a tiny seaside village in the south of France, Banyuls-sur-Mer, for the next phase of this improvised expedition. I harvested grapes on infamously steep slopes on completely wild vineyards. I met and worked with an entire community of completely natural winemakers, which means their practices involve the least amount of intervention necessary at every step in the process, from soil to bottle. But perhaps more importantly, I found myself retracing my family’s history of resistance and escape through France during WWII. To my complete surprise, many villagers knew the story of my great aunt, her role in the local resistance, and her perilous path through the Pyrenees. The path exists to this day and is called the “F Route” in her name, Lisa Fittko. Retracing her footsteps, hiking the route and hearing stories from people who knew her, took this expedition to the next level, which you can read about here.

Early morning on a vineyard in Banyuls-sur-Mer

Homeopathy and holistic living were part of my childhood experience. I felt at home in the forest, with a wild garden surrounding the house and a wood fire as the central heating system. There was a lot of work to be done, so it was easier to understand how to exist with nature’s unpredictability rather than fight it. Animals were great teachers, in my case mainly cats, horses and wildlife. I studied them continuously and tried to mimic their awareness of their surroundings. My mother understood how to let me discover a lot for myself, but was always there to answer questions. In Banyuls I met a woman who helped her 70 year old husband recover from COVID holistically, namely with essential oil of Ravintsara. I had so many questions. We spent the afternoon discussing different plants, oils, and home rituals. It was both so familiar yet strange that she had dedicated her time to research alternative healing methods. Minimal intervention, whether it be in agriculture, nutrition or psychology is supposed to be reserved for hippies, right? While I’m kidding, a lot of people are not. But the longer I spend in countries like France and Germany I see it’s not such a fringe concept. Natural wine was a passion of mine to which I dedicated the last ten years of my professional life. It has since become a fashionable sociopolitical statement, which is great, although increasingly it’s missing the mark. Recently there were revelations of harvest worker exploitation in Puglia, uncovering the disputed action/inaction of Valentina Passalacqua, ending her distribution almost entirely. What it shed light on was a far greater issue: the natural wine world isn’t as holistic as it thinks it is. There’s a lot to be done to amalgamate idea and action.

Go In to Go Out

Last year helped me see things as they are and appreciate them for exactly that; letting go of things that were beyond control, replacing those urges with an inexplicable lightness, considering the omniscient ever-possible consequences of travel and human interaction which serve as a reminder to be grateful for what we have within us. Things are just things. Learning to live outside of the framework of a job, a place to call home, or someone you’re close to shifts the focus to cultivating a new kind of resourcefulness.

© 2021 terroirisms

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