This weekend, Ryan and I took our shortest ever trip. After a five minute walk, Ryan and I were at Weingut Goswin Kranz, an organic winery in our small village. After two years of chickening out, we had finally got out the nerve to reach out to a winery owner and sign up to help pick grapes during the harvest.
We had met Sven during one of our town’s wine festivals. In May, the town opened up its wine cellars and 9 wineries displayed their most recent wines along with a local delicacy. Over Zweibelkuchen, we chatted to Sven in the backyard of his house/winery. After leaving, we decided that if anyone would be nice enough to let us harvest, it would be him. I emailed him a few days later and now, 4 months later, we finally had our chance!
After a false start (we had to wait an hour to let the vineyards dry out after the rain over night), Ryan and I met the owner, Sven, wearing our old clothes and waterproof jackets. We did a quick hello to our fellow harvesters of the day then crawled into Sven’s jeep with his 13 year old son and we were off into the vineyards.
Ryan and I tried to stop ourselves from asking too many questions. We were going to be harvesting Regent, a red grape grown in this mostly Riesling area. This patch was located in Brauneberger Mandelgraben, one of the 4 named vineyards in Brauneberg. I had always thought that each of those – Brauneberger Juffer, Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr, Brauneberger Klostergarten, and Brauneberger Mandelgraben – was the name of a winery that owned that area of land. It turns out that those are historical areas of wine instead, which each being broken up into sections by many winery owners.
After the 10 minute drive up many of the roads and trails Ryan and I hike on our free weekends, we parked alongside the road and climbed out of the car. We were on the backside of the hill in our village, surrounded by nothing but the sound of the wind in the leaves and some cows. Sven pointed out the section we would be harvesting today – 7 rows of grapes that stretched to the top of the hill. He gave us some very simple instructions, half in German and half in English – avoid the shriveled grapes. They were diseased and, since everything would be put together in a mash, those grapes would sour the taste of his wine. Then he handed us some sheers and two buckets and pointed at a row. There were 8 of us in total so each of us would pair up and walk up one side of the row.
And then we were off. Ryan and I took our buckets and started at the bottom of the nearest row. Dressed in hiking boots, jeans, and a few layers under rain jackets, we were quickly pushing up our sleeves as we searched for bunches of grapes. We started off tentatively. My biggest fear was ruining Sven’s wine with sour grapes that I missed. After a few feet, we looked back and realized that we were perhaps being too cautious. It looked like our row was untouched yet we had full buckets (translation: Eimer) at our feet.
Sven would come around and replace our full buckets with empty ones every once in a while. We slowly worked our way up the hill, snipping bunches and inspecting them for mold or decay before tossing them in our buckets. Our confidence grew as we climbed the hill but we were still far behind the two men on the row next to us. Sven had let us know that one of the men, Tony, had been helping him out for years. That made me feel slightly less novice.
By the time we had made it 10 feet up the row, we had already filled two buckets of grapes and our hands were dyed purple. The higher we got, the healthier the grapes got and, by the time we were halfway up the hill, we couldn’t move 3 feet down the line without filling a bucket. Sven did most of the heavy lifting, climbing the steep hills to empty our buckets. I had no idea where the time went and before we knew it, Sven was driving off in a tractor with a bathtub-sized bucket full of grapes on its way back to the winery.
Ryan and I kept moving along up the hill. It got steeper the further we went and by the time we were halfway up, my uphill foot was standing about 2 feet higher than my downhill foot. If anyone is looking for a good weekend workout for their core and upper back, I would highly suggest spending some time harvesting!
A little over halfway up the first hill, a car came by and, a minute later, Sven yelled for a coffee break. We carried down what we had in the buckets and dumped them into the second of the bathtub-sized bins for the day. We washed off our purple hands and then gathered around a small picnic table for a break of coffee, cookies and, would you believe it, 10:00 a.m. wine. Ryan and I, being the only true newbies, were the only ones to partake in that. We felt it was only fitting.
There was some stifled German conversation for a few minutes and then, everyone refreshed, we got back to work. Ryan and I trudged up our row, already laughing at the grapes we had left behind at the beginning. We were starting to feel like experts. We quickly finished that row and then everyone regrouped at the bottom of the last three rows. A mother/daughter pair went over our missed grapes from the first half of the row and we took on a new row with new confidence. Working from the bottom up again, we got almost halfway when Sven called for lunchtime.
We loaded into the back of his car and drove back. His son had left during the coffee break so it was just the three of us. We peppered him with more questions, asking about the production process. When we got back to the winery, he happily showed us his on-site production facility. He pointed out the tub of grapes we had harvested so far that morning. Then he showed us some Riesling they had harvested earlier, and some Dornfelder. All the grapes were sitting in buckets, waiting to be mashed and pressed.
Then he pointed to two other covered tubs that had already been mashed. They stomp their grapes the old fashioned way, using their feet. I, of course, thought this was fantastic. We asked him if his feet were as purple as our hands and he laughed and said he preferred to clean off his boots and stomp them that way. He could only smirk when I asked if that was fun. He explained which grapes you mash (the reds, which need to soak with their skins to get the color) and which you press. He told us about his different wines – reds, whites, and even roses. We could have gone on forever but lunch was almost ready so we followed him to the back of his house on a covered patio where we had first met him.
There was a big table laid out with 8 plates. Sven’s wife was inside cooking, along with his four sons, who we could hear pattering about the house. Sven passed around a bottle of Regent, the grapes we had been harvesting all day, and the group finally had a chance to talk.
“So, are you here on holiday?” the woman asked.
“Actually, we live in Brauneberg,” I answered. “Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch aber mein Mann kann kein Deutsch.” Ryan nodded in agreement.
“Oh, well that’s normal,” the woman said. “German can be hard.”
And with that, the ice was broken. Her daughter, a teenager and one of the area’s wine queens, was worried about the purple on her fingernails. She had to be at Wittlch’s wine fest that night and didn’t want to have purple fingers. Sven recommended butter and laundry detergent to get out the color.
We learned about Sven’s family and Tony talked a little of his work as a wine seller. That was how he had first met Sven – he deals wine to the Asian market and was helping Sven sell to Hong Kong, China, and Japan. Considering it was only Sven’s third year in production, I thought that was pretty impressive. We kept chatting over spaghetti bolognese and wine until about 1:30, when the mother and daughter, whose names I didn’t catch, excused themselves to go get ready for Oktoberfest. They said good bye to Tony (their husband/father it turns out!) and left.
The remaining group climbed back in the car and headed towards Brauneberger Mandelgraben again. On our way up, we told them about where we were from. We laughed about how my apartment building in Denver had more people living there then the whole village of Brauneberg (which is true)! Then we were back to harvesting. This time, there was much more chatting as we worked up the hill. Tony, who was born in Portugal but had lived in Germany for 45 years, talked to us about Portugal and the difficulty of learning languages as an adult. We learned about his kids and his parents and what it was like feeling half Portuguese, half German.
We chatted with his friend Yosef as well, although more me than Ryan. Yosef, from Eritrea but living in Germany for the past 8 years, could speak nine languages (!) but English was not one of them. By about 2:00, we finished harvesting the Regent and carried out buckets down the hill. During the day, we had filled 7 or 8 of the bathtub-sized buckets and the last one was toppling over with grapes.
“Can you take the car back to the winery?” Sven asked, handing Ryan the keys to his jeep. “Tony knows the way and I’ll drive the tractor.”
That’s right, folks. A man that we had met less than 8 hours earlier was handing us the keys to his (manual) jeep and asking us to drive the tiny wine trails while he drove the tractor with grapes. Considering I’ve only every driven an automatic, I crawled in the passenger seat and Tony laughed about having another adventure.
We made it back to the winery without too many problems and unloaded everything from the car. Sven asked what we were doing for the rest of the day and Ryan and I said we had no plans. Just like that, we agreed to another few hours of harvesting, this time down by Piesport, harvesting Riesling. We were offered another glass of wine before heading back out.
“Can you drive again?” Sven asked. He had to prepare some of the grapes back at the winery. They lifted another giant bucket into the back of the jeep (each one of which holds enough grapes for 300 bottles of wine) and we were back on the roads, driving 15 km. This time, we were back in a valley at the very top of a hill. The views to either side, with the changing colors and roads winding through valleys, were so picturesque I could hardly take it. I kept taking pictures although none of them turned out nearly as good as it was in person.
“Do you think Sven would take our picture when he gets here,” Yosef asked. “We’re like the international harvesters, from Portugal, Eritrea, and the US, harvesting in Germany!” We got a kick out of that but forgot all about it by the time Sven got there.
We worked our way down two more rows, these ones quite possibly even steeper than before.
“It’s really great that you volunteered to do this,” Tony said. “It’s really hard on the wine makers. They have so little time to harvest and so few people to help. It’s really great that you agreed to help.”
Little did he know how excited we were! Sven uses machines to harvest some of his flatter vineyards but the steep ones, like the ones we were climbing, had to be harvested by hand. It’s a process which, I can guarantee you, is quite painstaking. Sven’s colleague asked us earlier if we were still having fun and we responded quite enthusiastically. She smiled and said “Let’s talk again in a week.”
We finished our day by clearing two rows of Riesling between the four of us. Lugging those last few buckets up the hill left my calves and lungs burning. We dumped the grapes into the tub in the back and, at 5:30 pm, followed Tony down the tiny paths, carrying 300 bottles worth of wine in the trunk of a winery owner’s car. We couldn’t help but laugh. And then marvel. We have spent the last 2 years living along the Mosel, with miles of vineyards just outside our window. Yet we had no idea the amount of work it takes to harvest those or just how much wine those long stretches of vines can make.
We figured that, in the 8 hours of harvesting we had done that day, together Ryan and I had harvested a total of three rows. Now, we’re slow but not that slow! Each of those three rows held about 50 vines, each of which makes between 2 and 3 bottles of wine. In 8 hours, the two of us harvested enough for 400 – 500 bottles of wine and that was just 3 out of the millions of rows that we see every day. That’s a lot of wine, folks.
We got back to the winery in time to watch the biggest tractor I’ve ever seen drop off Sven’s delivery of Riesling that had been harvested by machine. I watched open-mouthed as the tractor pulled away, leaving a literal ton of grapes behind. The winery was a busy place, with one man even hosing off his purple legs after having stomped some grapes. We thanked Sven for letting us be a part of his harvesting and he ran to the back to pull out 6 bottles of wine for us to take home. Tony asked if we’d be back next weekend and we quickly agreed. As long as they had harvesting to do, we’d be there!
Sven is back at it again today and will be for the next two weeks. While I’m nursing my tired body, he’s running through fields, harvesting another few hundred or few thousand bottles of wine. I drank my wine last night (a dry Regent from Weingut Goswin Kranz, of course) I had an entirely new appreciation for it. It just goes to show that sometimes the best things can be found right in your backyard.