Ryan didn’t know what he was getting us into when he forwarded the email to me about the grape picking event that another American organization here was putting together but he did remember that I mentioned wanting to do it. I think we are both glad that we didn’t think too much about it before jumping in! We would have missed a great experience.
We were told to arrive at the vintner (winegrower) in Nierstein at 7:30 am on Saturday morning in old clothing, prepared to work hard and get dirty. After Ryan spent the week in The Hague followed by a hectic day in the office, I know he would have rather slept until noon on Saturday morning but he was a trooper.
We were all smiles at the start.
We were in the beautiful Rhine valley vineyards overlooking the Rhine River with an amazing view and beautiful weather. Of course we were smiling.
There were 18 of us, all new to the world of grape picking and we had a lot of questions. Where should we snip the grape bunches from the vine? Which grapes are good? Which ones are bad? What do we do when our buckets are full? When would we have breakfast? Do any of these massive spiders bite?
We learned that mold on the grapes is good. Throw them in the bucket. The brown grapes are usually bad. If you’re not sure, smell them. If they smell like vinegar they are bad. Snip the brown ones off and toss on them on the ground. The vintner told us that the mold is good for the wine. It will make the wine taste sweeter. As we tossed them in the bucket, plumes of mold dust floated up into the air.
We were happy to find bunches of fresh, green grapes free of mold, spiders or other insects. Ryan and I picked a very healthy row. Our buckets seemed to fill so quickly.
The process was simple. When the bucket was full, we yelled “eimer,” which is bucket in German. We passed the full buckets under the vines and someone passed an empty bucket back to us. At the end of the assembly line of grape pickers, someone dumped the buckets into a large vat attached to the back of a tractor. Once the vat was full, the tractor drove from the vineyard down to the vintner’s cellar where the wine was pressed immediately.
The vintner provided a nice spread for breakfast. There were delicious breads and cheeses and of course there was wine. Yes, with breakfast! After a few more hours of picking, we finally reached the end of our rows and the vintner’s crew served lunch too. The vintner’s staff set up tables for us in the vineyard and served a buffet with stew, bread and more wine. They followed lunch with wine cream for dessert.
I know this all sounds romantic, lunch in the vineyard, wine. All of that romance is over-shadowed by mud and bugs. We washed our hands in the same bucket of cold water as 17 other people and sat down to eat with mud caked on our shoes and jeans. Our hands were so sticky from the juice of the grapes that the plastic forks stuck to our hands. We all shared the few still water bottles that we brought skipping the carbonated water provided by the vintner. Sitting on wobbly benches, we shared 4 or 5 bottles of wine, mixing up our wine glasses as we drank and talked.
Even with all of the sticky, dirty mess, it was fun to get to know new people and taste wine from the vintner who would be making wine from the grapes we were picking.
After lunch, the vintner assigned us to new rows but after food and perhaps too much wine, the afternoon picking was a little more difficult. We went along snipping grapes from the vine, plopping them into the bucket and chatting about traveling to Italy and Switzerland. The vintner’s professional crew was more efficient with replacing the buckets and moving us along in the afternoon.
Picking grapes was hard work for people who sit at desks all day but it was also fun and rewarding. We covered the inside of the car with plastic to protect the car from our sticky, muddy clothes and followed the last tractor to the vintner’s cellar to watch the last of the grapes be fed into the press. The vintner tested some of the grapes for sugar content as they were fed into the press. Seeing the literal fruits of our labor pressed into what we hope is sweet, flavorful, delicious wine.
Next, we visited the wine cellar and learned more about the vintner and his family. It was fascinating to see the process… to be part of the process. We saw wine casks was over 700 years old and others had beautiful, distinguishing carving of town crests, family crests. One of the casks had a carving of the vintner’s grandfather and and his grandfather’s horses. This man grew up in the world of wine and his knowledge and passion for it made the rest of us excited too.
Picking grapes all day was hard work but it was fun work too. We can’t wait until the wine is ready and we can taste all of our hard work… and maybe a little mold.