Harvesting Gratitude

Michael Austin


Romance falls on the harvest. For those of us who love food and wine, and the natural cycles of the earth, images of the harvest grab our attention. Workers walking between rows of vines, bins full of grapes on their shoulders. Purple-stained hands, rumpled clothing. It all stokes our imaginations. Besides the people who pick grapes for money, tons of us have done it for free, and some have even paid for the privilege. A lot of us think we want to be a part of that, the harvest. Until we do it once.

Years ago, when one of my sisters was about to celebrate a “0” birthday, she invited anyone in our family to join her on a trip to Europe, including a winery visit or two. Just about everyone said they were in, but when push came to buy-your-ticket, it was just the two of us. We decided to fly into Rome to see what they know, hit a couple spots in Tuscany, and eventually make our way up to Piedmont in northern Italy. It was harvest time and I practically begged a winemaker in Barolo to let us pick grapes for him, partly because my sister wanted to try it, and because I thought it would be kind of cool myself.

It’s cool for about 15 minutes. Maybe 20 if you are extra-patient by nature. Have you seen professional grape-pickers do their thing? If so, you know how easy they make it look, how efficient and graceful they are. But you can’t do that—not your first time out (neither could I). You do not yet know how to fight the pain, the monotony, the wandering thoughts about all of the things you could be doing instead. Things like drinking wine. Eating lunch. Reading a book in the shade.

People who pick grapes for hire have the motivation to work through the mental games, but the physical demands never go away. Harvest workers are constantly bending over, and hunch-walking from cluster-to-cluster. They’re carrying or dragging a bin with them up and down the rows. Some vineyards are planted on steep hills (as they are in Barolo), and harvests can occur in sunlight that slowly roasts you—or in the artificially lighted dark of night, a different battle altogether.

A professional can’t quit whenever he wants to, and pull out his camera to snap artsy close-ups of sun-mottled leaves—or pose with his sister. Those men and women work harder than most of us ever work, doing the so-called “honest work” of the world, the work that hurts.

Sometimes you have to do something to realize you don’t want to do it—not because it’s beneath you, but because it requires fortitude you are not willing to conjure. Even dabbling in the work of the harvest—any harvest—might help you understand that it is the cornucopia that fires the pleasure centers in our brains, not the thought of the actual neck-crimping, knee-wrenching work. Those images can fool us. We love the bounty, not the toil. The idea of something finally being “ready” is what we love about the harvest. That is certainly part of the appeal of Thanksgiving. It signals the end of the growing season, and it gives us permission  to enjoy the goodness of what we’ve produced.  

A few days before our Barolo grape-picking, my sister and I were sitting in a plaza in Rome working through a post-dinner bottle of wine. When I was a kid, our house was full of sketch pads, pencils, gum erasers, woodblock carving tools, easels, paint tubes and enough skinny brushes for a game of pick-up sticks. A few of my siblings were into art back then, and I asked my sister why at some point they all abandoned it—even if a couple of them returned to it years later. “My kids were my art,” she said without pause. “I made them my art.” She didn’t say that she had no time for art because she was raising three kids, partially on her own after her husband’s passing. She said her kids were her art.

That is one long investment in an art project (and the clean-up must have been a thousand times worse than it is with just brushes and palette knives). I haven’t raised any kids, but I’m sure it’s harder than any wine harvest (or painting). To my sister’s credit, she turned out three masterpieces, and while she will never stop working on them, she is now back to painting on canvas, too.

I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from grape-picking. If you have the chance and you’re interested, give it a try. Just think twice about committing to an entire shift (or harvest), and remember that there is a big difference between doing something and having done something. The bounty at your disposal is real—not just romantic photography fodder—and someone made that happen, yet again. There is no better time of year to contemplate all of this than right now, when the northern hemisphere of the earth has largely given up her bounty and we close in on the end of another calendar year with a traditional Thanksgiving feast.

Give thanks for, among other things, your ability to enjoy wine without having to work a harvest (or manage a vineyard, or turn the grapes into wine). You surely work hard in other ways, and perhaps the world benefits from that. But this gift of wine…it just shows up...right next to the food, and the people who fill out our lives, and sometimes we don’t give it much thought.

This Thanksgiving raise a glass to the people at your table, and to the workers in the fields. It might help you enjoy the harvest more completely, and finally come to terms with leaving the harvesting—with all due respect and thanks—to the professionals.