For me, the words ‘wine region’ always brought to mind picturesque vineyards and rows of large oak barrels – places where affluent individuals stroll along, flourish their pinkies and talk about their boats.
McLaren Vale, South Australia seemed to project that very image. Every brochure I consulted showed distinguished couples laughing over bottles of wine amidst lush grapevines. These folks just looked so carefree and happy. But of course they were; they weren’t the ones picking the damn grapes.
It was my fourth week down under, and despite my efforts to frugalize, my funds had dipped into the three-figure range. Needing to put my work visa to use, I contacted a government agency that promised ‘harvest work’ an hour south of Adelaide.
There were no hostels in the area, only a holiday park that offered camping. So, I bought the cheapest tent I could find, two used long sleeved shirts and train ticket to McLaren Vale – ‘where the vines meet the sea.’
I arrived at an overcrowded Caravan Park and took the last tent space. It was directly under a sign that read “Sullage Dump Point” (it didn’t take me long to figure out what that meant) and next to a mansion-like tent owned by an English couple named Matt and Clara – in seven months time I’d be drinking cider with them at their home in Somerset, but I get ahead of myself.
The following morning was my first day as a migrant worker. We were each given snipers, two buckets, and brief instructions: “Get on opposite sides of the vine from your partner and start picking at a post. When you come to the next post, move down the line and find the next un-worked section. When the grapes are just coming over the top of your bucket, yell bucket, and the bucket boy will trade it out for an empty one and a token. Each token is worth $2.50 today. Alright, partner up and have at it!”
I told my friends back home that I was going to be picking grapes on a vineyard. While technically true, I carefully chose that phrasing as it sounded pleasant and carried an air of romance with it. But, that implied image couldn’t have been further from reality.
Instead, what I soon witnessed was a confusing frenzy of activity; people dashed about, tractors roared down rows and vines shook violently. A dozen odd languages were being shouted in hysterical tones, adding to the frantic atmosphere. The only English word that was constant was “BUCKET!” Every five seconds; “BUCKET!”
Now the grapes themselves were gorgeous looking, growing in mighty purple clumps with curly green strings snaking around each bunch. And they were covered with that frost-like coat you see in supermarket advertisements. These were the grapes I always tried to eat as a child, only to find they were just deceiving plastic decorations.
But, their undeniable beauty only made them harder to pick. Some full bunches of grapes grew so profusely they engulfed the stem they came from. Furthermore, hand-sized leaves often made it impossible to find the correct stem to cut. Even when you finally succeeded, those charming little coils wouldn’t let the fruit go. Sometimes I’d try to rip the cluster away in frustration, leaving me with a small handful of smashed grapes.
Not facing enough adversity, I made matters worse by snipping clean through the plump end of my pointer finger. Blood poured down my hand and onto the grapes. Trying to stop the bleeding and hide the wound, I snatched a large leaf and wrapped my finger. When that leaf became saturated, I dropped it and grabbed a new one. All the while, I still had to fill buckets and keep up with my picking partner.
“They’ll be a bit of blood in the wine this year,” exclaimed my co-picker. Looking across the vine, I saw his palm leaking twice as much blood as my finger. I held up my finger and we shared a moment of joint pity.
Despite our wounded appendages, we stuck through it. In an hours time our group had swarmed over two fields like a plague of locust; snatching up all we could get and then abruptly moving on. It didn’t feel much like any work I’d ever done. Grape picking was more akin to fighting for candy on the ground below a busted piñata. Except it wasn’t nearly as fun, and unlike candy gathering, I didn’t appear to be especially good at it.
After the workday concluded, most people had respectable amounts of tokens. One lady, who was running around like she had escaped a facility with padded walls, totaled fourteen buckets. I had a dismal seven. Apparently I had traveled 9,000 miles to sleep next to a sewage dump point, slice open my finger and make $17.50 AUD before tax. Not an encouraging realization.
Yet, at the end of that first day I took comfort in a single premonition… Somewhere, someday, some yuppie will be chatting with friends about his recent sailboat trip in a fancy restaurant. Inevitably, he’ll make a snide comment about the waitress and have a little laugh. Then, amused by his own wit and well being, the nicely dressed man will raise a glass of Shiraz to his mouth and sip on a bit of my blood.