The concept of working on vacation may seem quite strange to many people, yet an opportunity to become truly immersed in the agricultural life of a region by volunteering to assist with the grape harvest can be a memorable and unique cultural experience.
There's also a certain romance about the notion of grape picking, conjuring up images of rolling hills, breathtaking landscapes and stomping on the grapes with your bare feet in a huge wooden barrel. I won't sugar coat it, grape picking is hard work, often under a strong September sun, but the rewards remain bountiful -- you get to meet locals, share in an age old tradition and hopefully, indulge in the fruits of your labor and the celebrations that go with harvest season, especially in the wine regions of Italy and France.
Before the European Union and the uniformity of employment laws were enacted across the continent, it was relatively easy for students, backpackers and interested tourists to go grape picking. The pay wasn't high, and the work conditions were sometimes grueling, but the benefits usually included free room and board at the vineyard and a chance to learn the language and interact with different people. Today, finding paid grape picking work is far more difficult as you generally have to be European and show the required papers and identification. If it is all about the experience and not about the remuneration, volunteering may be your best option. You'll still receive all the benefits, just not the $1 or so per hour that other workers may be paid. The idea of vineyard vacations have become so popular that some wineries actually charge people to work in the fields, so be sure to find the opportunity that best suits you. So if it's Champagne, the Loire, Burgundy or Chianti, try contacting the local tourist office in the region you wish to visit for information about volunteering.
La vendemmia, the grape harvest season in Italy, is highly anticipated and celebrated like no other seasonal event in the life of Italian farmers. Vines are the oldest cultivated crop on the Italian peninsula, dating back millennia, thus harvest takes on an almost ritualistic and sacred meaning for the generations of Italians who participate. It is also very much a family affair and you will see entire family groups including grandparents and small children taking part. Many small towns and villages hold wine themed festivals and public gatherings.
In France, during the months of September and October, the Vendage is likewise a time for celebration. This ceremony honors what are considered the finest grapes in the world as they are picked and harvested throughout the country's numerous wine regions.
An excellent website that matches potential pickers with individual French vineyards and the regional wine association can be found through Agence National pour l'Emploi's www.anpe.fr. Unfortunately, the site is totally in French so unless you're linguistically talented or you have someone to translate for you, you may need to look for other options.
Often hotels and villas that you stay at across Europe can arrange grape picking for you as part of your stay. For example, Perfect Places (www.perfectplaces.com) features a four-bedroom villa (that sleeps six people) in Bergerac, Dordogne (France) available for rent during September/October for $820 a week. They can set up grape picking excursions for you without a fee. Likewise in Motovun, Croatia, stay at the Hotel Kastel (www.hotel-kastel-motovun.hr) where grape picking at nearby vineyards will be organized for you. Room rates here range from approximately $40 to $70 per night. Vacation Villas (www.vacationvillas.net) can set you up in your own whitewashed Greek villa on the historic island of Crete. In the nearby town of Livadia, villa tenants take part in the daily activities of the village including grape picking and grape stomping, learning how to make tsikoudia (the Cretan local wine). Prices for this villa start at $1,174 per week in late September and throughout October and the villa sleeps eight people.
Activities Abroad (www.activitiesabroad.com/wine) and the Newcastle Wine School in the UK have teamed up to create a "Rhone Valley, France Tour" beginning on September 11, 2005. This six-day wine tasting tour includes grape picking and parts of the harvest process. The $1,050 price includes five-nights at the three-star Hotel Colombet in the market town of Nyons, airport transfers, local transport to and from the vineyards, three dinners, two lunches, winery tours and tastings at Tavel, Gigondas/Vacqueryas, Seguret, Vinsobres, Beaumes de Venise and Chateauneuf du Pape, a grape picking session and a guided vineyard walk. Airfare to Nimes in southern France is additional, but is easily accessible on Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) from London's Luton airport.
Grape picking is extremely popular down under although as you'd imagine the seasons are reversed so the harvesting period runs from late January to April. World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (www.wwoof.com.au) can provide information about volunteer work on organic vineyards throughout Australia. For more information about opportunities in South Australia, home to some of the most celebrated wines in the world, visit www.southaustralia.com. Grape picking work is also available in the wine growing regions of New Zealand's Hawke's Bay and Marlborough area, particularly in Hastings and Blenheim. Temporary working visas may be required (US citizens are eligible in both Australia and New Zealand) however these must be issued prior to your departure. Contact individual countries' consulates for further information.
If you aim to stay local this fall, you can still get involved at vineyards across the United States. Opportunities for grape picking exist in most of the country's wine producing areas including Napa and Sonoma in California, Willamette Valley in Oregon and New York's Finger Lakes region. If you are interested in a specific vineyard, you should contact them directly, or alternatively the chamber of commerce or wine association in the area of choice.
The smaller and less-known vineyards of Ohio often allow volunteers to help them with the harvest. In general you would register your interest prior to the season by contacting the individual winery, or you could just visit the winery on public picking days that are usually advertised in local newspapers. A few suggestions for vineyards to try include:
Debonné Vineyards (tel. 440/466-3485; www.debonne.com) in Madison, Troutman Vineyards (tel. 330/263-4345; www.troutmanvineyards.com) in Wooster, Rainbow Hills Vineyards (tel. 740/545-9305) in Newcomerstown and Slate Run Vineyard (tel. 614/834-8577; www.slaterunvineyard.com) in Canal Winchester.
Although some wineries will actually charge visitors for the privilege of picking their grapes, most wineries that have public picking days allow volunteers to spend a day among the vines as long as they can commit to a few hours of work. For a wine enthusiast, being part of the actual winemaking process can be very appealing. Even for those with little knowledge of wine, being part of the picking process gives you insight into the hard work and time that goes into wine production and a greater appreciation for the wine you drink.
Share your thoughts on the Frommers.com Cultural Immersion Message Boards about grape picking, harvest vacations or your enthusiasm for wine in general.