Making Pinot Noir Requires Back-Breaking Work

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Making Pinot Noir Requires Back-Breaking Work

Every day, I watched as men and women knelt on the ground and picked the grapes. The strongest workers transported the harvest on their backs.

This story was originally published in French on MUNCHIES FR.

In the Grand Cru region of Burgundy, September is harvest season. On these lands where the vines stretch as far as the eye can see, seasonal workers from all over France—and beyond—pick the grapes that will be used to produce some of the world's best wines.

My photos tell the story of a team of grape pickers I spent time with in Pommard, a famous village near Beaune, which produces AOC-certified pinot noir wines.

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A cloudy morning—one of the best times to pick grapes, in the cool air. All photos by the author. Vladi, one of the group's heavy lifters, "a stalwart communist."

Every day, in the rows and rows of vines that extend to the horizon, I watched as the men and women knelt on the ground and flexed their bodies in order to pick the grapes. The strongest workers transported the harvest on their backs.

I really appreciated these moments among them. Even though they lead unconventional lives, these men and women toil so that we can appreciate Burgundy's great wines. I think their hard work is underappreciated.

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The 10 AM snack and a glass of red wine. The lifter waits for the pickers to poke out their heads like gophers, in order to empty their buckets.

During the workweek, the pace is intense. The workers get up at 7 AM, slurp down breakfast (which, for some, includes red wine), and head to the vineyard with their pruning shears. At 10 AM, it's snack time: sandwiches of pâté and pickles, coffee, or, for the sturdier of the bunch, a liter of red. This makes going back to work a much more joyous affair.

At 1 PM, it's time for the lunch break, which includes a nice meal and another liter of fluids. Afterward, it's back to the grind. The team cuts vines and loads the giant baskets on the lifters' backs with kilos and kilos of grapes. At 6 PM, the day is finally over, and it's happy hour—shower time can wait. At 8 PM, dinner is served and everyone gathers around the table—another opportunity to whip out a nice red wine. The last grape pickers standing finally head to bed around 2 AM.

Those with whom I spent time came from very different backgrounds. There were young people, students, old people, even homeless people and ex-convicts. When they get together, they create their own little world. Some bring up their past—the things they should have done, or regret doing. In the evenings, they share memories of past harvests and tell stories. One grape picker tells the story about how last year he woke up the owner of the winery in the middle of the night, screaming "I'm a dragon!" Everyone guesses correctly that he was sleepwalking.

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One of the grape pickers is forced to take a power-washer shower.

Another tells the story of a picker who arrived in the vines more than an hour late, already completely drunk. He ate a piece of bread during the 10 AM break and started working. A few minutes later, he was throwing it all back up in the vines.

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The table is set for dinner.

These people are tireless. They go back to their regular jobs after the harvest. The tougher ones go on to work the Beaujolais harvest or to cut Christmas trees.

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Next year, most of them will likely come back to make another few bucks—roughly 400 euros for five days of work.

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Sometimes, you gotta work with what you have: kitchen gloves. If there's a start line and a finish line, then it's a race. This guy wearing a jersey from France's national soccer team finished picking the grapes in his alley before anyone else.

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Christ makes an appearance inside a basket.

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