4 October 1999
Cheryln and I really didn't know what we were getting in to here, and we were quite nervous. We didn't know how hard the work was going to be, how spartan the accommodations and how the people were going to react to us and we were a bit worried about working without a visa and so we had left our options open... we only committed to stay for a few days, with an option for more.
On top of that basic nervousness, we broke a basic rule of travelling and arrived into a new place at night. When you arrive at night you see nothing of the approach and can't prepare, you are just disgorged from the train into the dark streets. It's something we try to avoid. Our 2 hour talk with Manfred had calmed us considerably, but as we approached the end of our destination, we got nervous again.
We got off the train and started walking down an alleyway, in the rain. And now it was a cold rain... after only a few blocks we entered a court with tall houses all around and were quickly led up the stairs of one of the buildings.
And suddenly we found ourselves in a small, very warm, steamy kitchen with food on the table and people greeting us with big smiles. JJ Cale was playing (he is a very textured songwriter -- very comforting, and very appropriate). We sat and ate while they talked about organic wine (this is an ORGANIC winery) in a mix of German and English. We immediatly were very comfortable there.
The wine maker is named Michael (pronounced more like Michelle) and looks kind of what you would picture a wine maker looking like... big bear of a man, bushy beard, dirty green felt hat with a silk band, leather pants very muddy, leather vest. You can see a photo of him tasting his wine at http://www.reinerwein.de/.
Our "spartan accommodations" turned out to be a very nice room to ourselves, the room Michael had as a boy, with soft mattresses and nice furniture. Oh, how spartan!
The two weeks we spent at the winery were one of the most wonderful times I have ever had... every morning we would get up to a large German breakfast; then the local workers would assemble in the court in front of the house and we would all pile into and onto muddy trailers behind the tractors. The winery was not, as I pictured it, out in the middle of vineyards, but rather 2 blocks from the center of town.
We would drive through town, often through the commuters heading into Wiesbaden and Frankfurt, and out to the vineyards. The entire countryside, as far as the eye can see is covered with vineyards (and the occasional hamlet or town plopped down amongst the grapes). No one winery owns a single huge area, everyone owns a few lines here, and a few lines there. That way, everyone has some of each type of grape, and the best grapes are not all held by one person.
When we arrived at our site for the day, we would pair up (this meant that Cheryln and I always cut together) and start cutting grapes. This was a historical year, both for quality and quantity in the Rheingau and the vines were heavy with fruit. Many of the bunches looked like the postcards, big tight bunches of firm, bright green grapes. Those are the most beautiful grapes, but they are not the best for wine. That first day we were only cutting for Traubensaft (grape juice) so most of the grapes were green (and speed was important, it had to be in bottles within 36 hours of cutting or it would ferment!) but after that, many of the groups were filled with purple or even brown overripe, fungus filled grapes. These are the sweetest and the best for wine. We ate MANY grapes off the vine, but mostly the green ones.
Since this is an organic winery, he does not apply herbicides that kill the fungus, and the fungus is in many grapes... but this is a good fungus and the other wineries, who kill it, have to ADD purchased fungus to the juice to make it ferment right!
So we would reach in behind the big leaves (or tear them off) grab a bunch with one hand, and use our clippers to cut them off... watching out for our fingers, and those of our partner! When our small bucket was full, a puntetrager would come around... this was a person with a large bucket on his back that we would empty our buckets into... we did this about 200 times a day, and late in the day when the buckets were full and the trager was tired, you would often hear the calls of AUS LAREN (I need to empty!) or EIMER FUL (full bucket)...
The green grapes stayed pretty much intact, but the others dripped all over everything, so there was grape juice running down your hands all day (and covering your shirt and mixing with the mud on your pants!!) but this was good, because the acid in the grapes cleaned cuts and speeded healing. And yes, I did test this out!
So yes, I did cut myself. Since we were across the vine from our partners, there was always a danger of being cut by the other person, but I was so busy looking out for Cheryln's shears that I just stuck my hand behind a leaf to grab a group of green grapes and reached back to clip the stem. Got my thumb as well. It healed very quickly after days of grape juice.
Cutting the grapes was a lot like eating grapes. You look for the best bunch, overlooking all the others, and cut it. Then you look for the best one, overlooking all the others, and cut it. Until only the really gooey ones are left and they are now the best. And soon the vine is empty.
There have been vineyards in this region since the romans planted them over 2000 years ago. Michael told us that the plants can live at least 250 years each!!! But 120 years ago a blight from America devastated the area, so all the grapes are newer than that.
There were a variety of people out cutting grapes -- the same general group every day, but slight differences. There were very old men, teenage punk rockers, graduate students, drunks, immigrants, refugees and these two weird Americans. Many of them spoke at least a little english (especially the grad students who we became pretty good friends with) but not all.
The immigrants were from Turkey and Arminia (a wine region in Arminia) and the refugee was from Sierra Leone in Africa. (We did see, on some neighboring vines one day, some Kosavar refugees.) We all had a good time together. It was kind of funny... two of the Arminians were brothers, and very big serious looking guys. One day we were very intimidated by this big Arminian standing over us in the morning, but by the afternoon we were joking with him and having fun.
The rows varied in length, some only took about 10 minutes and were no more than 3 blocks (a block is the section from post to post... about 5 plants) long, others took half the day and seemed to be miles long. Most took about an hour to an hour and a half. Longer than most previous years because of the amazing quantity this year.
The first row of the morning was cold, but usually went pretty fast, by lunch time I was always dragging really badly. Around noon, when we finished a row, Michael would call for break. We would all gather around the wagon, sit in the vineyards and drink wine and (VERY) fresh grape juice and eat bread and cheese and chocolate ... it was really quite wonderful... ahhhh.
It rained a bit in the morning the first two days, but after that it was all sunshine. This was good because rain during harvest damages the grapes. Both Cheryln and I wore our new sun hats everyday and they were perfect for the task. Cheryln's is a bright blue straw hat with a big brim -- she bought it for about $5 at the Brixton Market in London. Mine is a cricket hat, the white canvas hat that the trendy TILLY hat is based on. I got it for about $11 at a street market in Cambridge England.
Around 3pm (although a couple of times as late as 5:30) Michael would call it a day, we would pile back on to the wagons and ride through town to the winery. I felt like I got a tiny glimpse at what it might be like to be a migrant worker (just a tiny glimpse, I'm not implying this was really like that... we were living in luxury!)
Afterward all the other workers had taken their bottle of wine and headed home, Cheryln and I would usually spray down the buckets and shears and other equipment with the hot and cold running hose and would still usually have time to walk through town to the natural foods store, or the bakery with the yummy chocolate cookies. We were always VERY hungry after working all day.
In the evenings we showered and relaxed. There were anywhere from 5 to 11 of us at dinner. Michael and his girlfriend Eva lived in the apartment, so they were always there. Roland and Karl Heinz and Manfred were helping to run the presses and sleeping in the room next to us, so they were always there. And occasionally other friends or workers would be there for dinner... harvest is a time that people gather and lots of old friends would come around.
We (the 7 of so of us staying there) took turns cooking each night, Cheryln and I took our turns, and Michael always tried to make traditional german meals for us, which were yummy. Although they didn't always work! One night was a disaster, we just felt terrible for him... but it still tasted good! They were always sensitive to our vegetarianism.
We ate late, but every night we all sat around in the kitchen eating
and talking about politics and grapes and wine and everything. It
was an amazing experience. I loved it.
© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000
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