Wine Country

Asked if I could help harvest grapes for a family wanting to expand their Bio-wine industry; I agreed, and found that it was more than just grapes that were harvested.

A local family which we have come to know, began a business venture a few years ago producing ecologically friendly wine. Bio-wine, as it is known in Germany, has some tightly controlled standards which involve everything from the growing of the grapes, the maintenance of the vines; to the fermentation process, and end product. When I agreed to help I was simply told when to meet at the house, and the departure time to the Kaiserstuhl area where the vineyard is located.

I arrived at the beautiful rustic farmhouse to find some family members out in the field attending to the horses, and others attaching trailers to vehicles that were brimming full with colourful boxes and further supplies needed for the harvest. A group of about 12 people sat around a dinning table still laden with a hearty breakfast and I was met with the sent of warm bread, strong coffee and a number of different languages: German, French and English. A loud welcome was heard, and it was quickly announced that here we all use ‘Du’ the informal you whilst people poured out of the narrow doorway of the dinning room like sand in an hourglass to find rubber boats, jackets and bags, everyone shaking my hand in greeting.

A number of vehicles transported the group to the Kaiserstuhl region, an old volcanic area now teared with various vineyards, the hill cross-hatched with fencing and vines now heavy with grapes. Today we will be harvesting Spätbegrunder (Pino Noir), a full bodied red grape with compact bunches. After a quick tutorial about watching out for signs of fungus, rot and insects; some small plier-like sisores were placed in my hand and I was paired up with someone to work a row.

A few hired hands had also been brought to the vineyard, and as it seemed everyone had done this before, the people seemed to speed away down the sharply slopped land filling box after colourful box with a load of grapes the only sounds being the snip of scissors and shuffle of boots in the damp grass. The process was really very simple. Cut the bunches, pick out any signs of rotting fruit (easily seen, and smelled with the waft of vinegar) and place the grapes in the box, then repeat until you reached the end of the row, at which time you and your partner found another row to harvest. The work sped by as you quietly discuss things with your helper, getting to know about your individual stories and backgrounds. Every so often, one of the two young men who own the operation would come past to chat and take a look at the progress, often producing their own pruning sheers from pockets and working along side you in conversation, both quality control and encouragement.

At midday the sun has made the grey sky a lighter grey; the call to stop is shouted out, and a ‘table’ has been set using boxes and an old table clothe. Wine is poured into real wine glasses and we all wait until everyone has be served, and ‘Cheers’ is announced by the brothers together to which we echo with raised glasses, the sun appearing briefly to add sparkle to the ruby liquid in our wineglasses. We all begin to eat and drink as soup, sandwiches, chocolate and coffee are served. The two brothers who own and operate the vineyard make sure that everyone is well fed and happy. People sit around on upturned empty crates chatting to one another. For some, they have gathered here every year, and others much like myself, have only just started to work. The sun emerges from behind the high cloud cover and we have a view to the Rhein valley and beyond; all of it making the wine in our glasses taste all the more better.

By mid-afternoon we have cleared out one area of the vineyard and need to move to the next, which as it turns out, is easier said then done, as we are not the only ones on the hill harvesting today. Rains and a shortage of labourers have made it difficult and the window of opportunity will soon be slammed shut so tractors, both large and small, modern and ancient are travelling around the steep hill and the many narrow switchbacked roads. We move everyone and all the equipment down to the ‘crater’ where the village is, and over to the other side of the hill which affords more views. Cliff faces full of holes from nesting swallows and breeding pairs of Bee Eaters remind us of the ecologically sensitive area. Having taken a short 15 minute break as the smallest of all the vehicle present opens and beer has been unloaded for everyone to drink, no sooner is has the bottle been finished that we are back to work with another partner, and the snip of scissors and shuffle of feet is matched with the fall of grapes and rise of conversations.

A micro-climate change has happened from one location to the next so that despite only a short ‘hop’ from one location to the next, here the grapes are larger, less tightly compact and very fresh, making the boxes fill quickly. A short rain shower passes and everyone is told to look out for a rainbow; a full one is found stretching across the whole valley, some take out mobile phones to photograph the scene, others talk in amazement.

As the sun prepares to set, the final preparations are made for departure. I am in one of the vehicles assigned to get some of the Romanian workers back to their lodgings, but we find ourselves all a bit frustrated, in that the lead car with the navigation and address has made it down the hillside quickly and left us behind as we slowly reverse down the narrow lanes with the sound of our tires slipping underneath. The driver I am with turns out to be from out of town, Berlin, and has no idea of the surrounding villages and we discover once he has pulled over in the village streets, his phone has no signal. My mobile alerts me quickly, that I am apparently in France and Roaming, just before the screen goes dark as the battery has run out of power. We turn to ask the Romanians where they live. They don’t know and they cannot answer even with using German and English we try to piece together were they are staying. The man who does the only speaking says it is near the ‘Rewe,’ a grocery store chain which is about as frequently seen as an Aldi, or Lidl in every village. He pronounces a name of a place which sounds like a garbled version of a village listed on a directional sign so we take a chance and head out.

Eventually we find ourselves pulled to the side of the road with me leaning out the window asking people for directions to this mysterious place where the farm labourers reside and to my astonishment a woman remarks, “Down the road, over the train tracks, then left.” We drive with renewed vigour having only to brake suddenly for a passing tractor hauling three wagons full of grapes. We find the road closed for construction and our led out several kilometres in the now dark valley. A large REWE sign illuminates our path ahead, and the man in the backseat starts looking around keenly with a hidden instinct of recognition.

“Not here!” The fellow shouts out. “Go.” he says and points straight ahead. After a few kilometres more, he says, “Slow,” and then he seems to have found his way more clearly by memory and he gives us a steady stream of directions as he yells out, “Left” while he points to his right, and “Right” as he points to his left. In the beginning of all this our van does a quick swerve at each instruction as the driver responds to the vocal response, and I have to reinterpret, glancing back to hand gestures pointing in the opposite directions. Soon the driver and I are speaking about the “other left” and the “other right” and our van remains steady on course. As the darkness surrounds us in the countryside the labourers are safely back at a large barn where they are housed.

A car waits for us in the dark and everything is explained about how we got lost and had the perfect combination of people in the van to get even more confused and disoriented. Now for the remainder of the the journey the driver and I have a more lighthearted conversation. We get to know each others backgrounds and he jokes in saying that for the last ten days he has been helping with the harvest and maybe knows a little more about what it is like to be a priest. He explains the routine of eating and work, but that each day is a different vineyard, often with different helpers. You are well fed, not paid well, and have to listen to people at what he called, “the vineyard confessional.” I laughed as he explained how the vines often obstruct the ‘co-worker’ on the other side of the trellis as does the screen in a confessional box. The conversation, he remarks, is also rather confessional, as people end up telling you their life-story. The driver also said that at the end of the day he is simply so exhausted that he has no energy left for himself, he cannot even make it through reading a newspaper article before falling asleep. Then he is woken by an alarm and a new day has dawned.

While I am now tired, and I am sure my muscles will let me know more about it tomorrow, I believe that the whole experience will be like a fine wine, better as it ages. Maybe, in due season, I will be asked again to help out with another harvest and my appreciation for those who labour and toil will make the food and drink taste all the more richer, and that while listening to the life stories of others mixed in with the snip of scissors and the swish of dew moistened grass, we may all be encouraged to pause glance upward and await a rainbow.

Bee Eaters

Gazing in one direction the prominent hills of the Black-forest take up a commanding scene, but if I cast my eyes westward, toward France, the Kaisersthul is the one clear hill on the horizon before the Rhine.  The Kaisersthul, or ‘Emperors chair’, is a little over 500 metres at the summit and is an old volcano.  It is known worldwide for the wines that come from its terraced slopes, and for some interesting flora and fauna.

In what is a micro-climate of Mediterranean temperatures it is possible to find sand lizards, praying mantis, and breeding colonies of the European Bee Eater.  Having journeyed with a friend from church I was surprised that we were able to spot the Bee Eaters so quickly.  Driving up a narrow road with the only traffic being narrow bodied farm tractors that are built to pass between the row upon row of grape vines, and the occasional cyclist, we stopped the car and sat on a wooden bench and within moments graceful birds glided above and below our vantage point.

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It was the warmest day of the year, with the temperature hovering around 30 C and the air heavily scented with the perfume of flowering trees.  All very exciting stuff for those who like to birdwatch.  Meanwhile in Scotland, one of my favourite birds species from Canada, the Red-winged Blackbird, was grabbing the attention of those on the hunt for rare birds.  After my own outing, I heard reports of birdwatcher flocking to a remote part of Scotland to see the first time visitor of a female Red-winged Blackbird.

I was glad that my trip was not so frantic, a lot warmer, and spent in good company.  To end the birdwatching trip and toast my first sighting of a Bee Eater at the Kaiserstuhl – like most outdoor hikes in Germany – we were able to find a nice local restaurant where we could put down the binoculars and lift another set of glasses to end our day.