Harvest Widow – the other, though arguably not better, half of wine making

There’s a term in the the wine industry, a ‘Harvest Widow’. I’m a Harvest Widow. In fact this is my 6th time being a widow. No, I haven’t butchered 6 husbands and hidden them under the vines, though harvest time may give one ideas. Harvest season is the best of times and the worst of times, as it brings in the bounty (hopefully) but also means long, long, long hours, getting up before dawn, coming home well after dark, often working through the night. And as a Harvest Widow, I keep the home fires burning, food ready and on the table and to bring to work the next day, the animals fed, watered and walked, and I do lots and lots and lots of laundry.

Harvest season in the wine industry varies depending on the grape type, whites are picked earlier than reds, and the when is dependent on where, as well as weather. The viticulturist and wine maker work together to taste the sugar levels of the grapes and determine when they will be harvested. Harvest can be picked as early as end of June/beginning of July through and into November in the Northern Hemisphere, reverse for the Southern. Harvest means all hands to deck and long, long, long back breaking hours. A 10 – 12 hour day is the norm, 6, even sometimes 7 days a week. This goes on for the duration of the actual harvesting of the grapes, but then beyond as the wine is made from them, so although it is called ‘harvest’ it is not just about bringing in the grapes.

Harvest is completed when the wine is made from all the grapes that have come in. So, depending on how many grapes are coming in, a harvest can last a few weeks to months. This year, because of the weather hitting the grapes our area (Chablis, France) was down about 70% in the grape yield, so harvests were shorter than normal.

Because of our non-existent harvest at the vineyard we manage (we lost almost all of it to the weather), Pumpjack took on oenology work at William LeFevre in Chablis for their harvest. It commenced on 5th September, with the cleaning of the tanks in readiness of the grapes coming in. There is a saying in the wine making industry. Wine making is 90% cleaning, 10% beer. Everything has to be pristine and 100% immaculate or there is risk of contamination with bacteria’s and other nasties (note technical term there) to the wine, before, during and after. The beer? Well, think about it. You work around wine all day, the smell, the taste, possibly 12 hours a day every day, what would you like to drink at the end of the day? Funny enough, not wine.

I found being a harvest widow really tough the first time. I had been warned, but hadn’t really taken into account how honestly lonely it is. We were in Spain and Pumpjack was night Oenologist for Raimat. They have the largest vineyards in Europe, so this meant lots and lots and lots of grapes coming in, white and red. He started at the end of June working the night shift, 6pm to 6 am, and finished end of October. He had one day off in early October. I can’t remember why. As he worked nights and slept days, I found myself more or less alone all the time in a small Spanish town, knowing no one and speaking only a basic level of Spanish (which did improve whilst there.) We had jumped in the deep end on many fronts, extreme hours, isolation and culture shock. It was a very lonely time as I never saw Pumpjack with the exception of eating one meal with him before he went off to work. I was glad I was there though or I have no idea how he would have eaten. He went to bed at 8am and got up at 3pm to eat ‘dinner’, leaving for work at 5pm.  Since the shops opened at 8am closed at 12, opened again at 5pm to close at 9pm, goodness knows when he would have found time to get food. Some places during harvest will provide food, some 3 meals a day, others lunch only, but some you simply fend for your self. It varies by country and winery.

When one first gets into the wine making industry you have to work at getting a few harvests under your belt to gain experience. One does this by changing hemispheres. You essentially spend 6 months in one hemisphere, undertaking a harvest within this time, then change to the other side of the world and repeat. Some even manage 3 harvests a year, which takes some real organising. And don’t talk to me about visas.

Spain was definitely the hardest harvest, for both of us. Since then nothing has been as extreme, so literally it all became easier. Pumpjack never had to work for as long a harvest, although he still generally had to do 12 hour days or nights. It was still a lonely existence, but I became more adept at what to do with my time. I became quite good at buying and selling as we often accumulated a few essential items only to have to sell them again as we moved on to a new harvest. This led me to think of setting up our shop. I have always loved creating things, especially stationary and cards, as I adore the old fashioned art of letter writing. Our shop began with cards and such that I made, then branched in to items I made from foraging (St John’s Wort oil, chamomile tea, herb sugars and so on). And then further branched into French and quirky vintage items we found in our days exploring our area here in France. Our Pumpjack & Piddlewick Shop was born.

By the way, a harvest widow does not just apply to the wine industry, but all agricultural industry’s. And, there is in fact a fairly decent support network out there or helpful hints, forums, chat groups, etc. If you find yourself in a Harvest Widow situation, do check them out. There really is no reason to find yourself ‘alone’ at harvest time.

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4 Comments

    1. Phew, sorry to be slow in responding! Between harvest and my parents visiting (lovely time) I haven’t had a moment to get online. Going to enjoy the calm of the darker days.

      Harvest is easier these days, simply through experience and knowing what to expect, but my goodness the first time! Boredom, tears, and lots and lots of baking (in 40 degree C heat! – but there was little else to do.) Now with my Etsy shop and the animals I am kept nicely busy in the day and can better enjoy the limited time I have with my other half.

      Thanks for thinking of me 🙂

  1. Love your site! We were growing grapes for wine and had pet ducks before we moved a few years ago. So many common interests. I will definitely be lurking about.
    Cheers to you and Pumpjack!

    1. Author

      Right back at you. It’s such a small world isn’t it? How did you find having pet ducks?

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