Smoko, The Flaming Lips, The Damned and Not Carking It on my First Day Picking

ImageHere’s what I knew about picking grapes before today: 

Zero.  Nada.  Zilch.

Here’s what I know about grape-picking after a full day’s work:

Not a whole lot more than I did before. 

But I know a few other things now.

This is Larry.  Larry used to teach high school before he became a viticulturist.  It was 8am when he stood on a crate attached to the back of the tractor this fine but slightly foggy morning and said, “Those of you who are new, well, you’ll learn as you go.  By smoko you’ll have it all figured out.”   Smoko is what Kiwis call a smoke break.  Except I didn’t see anyone smoking during the mid-morning break.  Instead, I saw a whole lot of retired folks get out their thermos and canvas chairs for a fifteen minute cup of tea.  Very civilized.

For picking grapes the deal is, you bring your own gloves and they provide the clippers, or secateurs, as they call them.  “This is very important,” someone hollered, “like a surgeon choosing his scalpel!” 

Once everyone had their “weapon of choice,” as someone else called the clippers, they made sure everyone had a partner.  The vines are worked in pairs–one person picking on either side of the vine.  I didn’t have a partner, so I joined the “I don’t have a partner” group.  A tall lanky guy with red hair and glasses said he’d be my partner, so off we went down between the rows of grapes. 

“I’m Austin,” he said. 

“Wait–are you American?”  I couldn’t be sure if I could trust my ears.   

“Yeah, I’m from Oklahoma, where are you from?”

“I used to live in Oklahoma!  I went to Wiley Post Elementary School!  But I’m from Texas.”   

Turns out Austin and I are the only two Americans out of the whole team of pickers.  There are a few Europeans, including two Italians, who are traveling workers like Austin.  The rest are locals. 

Austin was good company, we brought each other up to speed as to how we both ended up on opposite sides of the vine.  I’d learned a lot about Austin but something occurred to me, “Austin!  I don’t even know what your face looks like!”  He peered through the vines, cheesing his freckly face at me. 

What I like best about Austin is that he is nice.  Just really, really nice.  He has orange hair with matching orange gloves.  And he laughs a lot, which makes time pass quicker.  At this so-called smoko, I learned that underneath his snazzy orange gloves he wears sparkly nail polish.  We both decided grape picking isn’t near as hard as we thought it would be in our heads.  

But that’s not to say it was easy. 

Along with your picking partner you work from bay to bay–that is, from one wooden post to another.  Each bay is about twenty feet.  Once you’re finished with your bay, you climb underneath the grapevine and move up to the next row.  This means that about every ten to twenty minutes, depending on how difficult the grapes are to get off the vine, you are doing a big huge lunging squat to get right underneath the vine.  Plus you’re pulling your bin along with you or kicking it in front of you (if it’s empty).  By the end of the day, my left knee blocked on me in mid squat and boom, I was on the ground like a tipped over toddler.  I hopped up from there but without using my knees.  I need to have a talk with them as they are going to have to toughen up.  

The thing with grapes is that they are funny.  Some of them seem like they have positioned themselves perfectly for your picking convenience.  They just can’t wait to be picked.  They’re like, “Mememememememe!  Pick me!”  I usually go straight for those if Austin hasn’t already clipped and binned them already.  These are the ones that if you don’t catch them in your hand because they are wedged in between another vine, the are happy to fall right into the bin on their own, plopImage

The rest of them, however, we will call them The Damned, are far more difficult.  You can’t figure out where they’re attached on the vine.  The bunches grow tightly into one another, intertwining themselves so far you can’t figure out where they should be clipped.  You might work on a bunch for a good solid minute or so before just wanting to call your mom or rip them to bits.  I sabotaged many a bunch because of this.  

A tractor is continually circling the rows with a huge crate in the front and back.  Three guys trail it.  Their job is to empty your bin and boy was I always glad to see them.  They are awesome.  And they’re always cracking jokes despite doing by far the worst part of grape picking.  All that bending down and heaving!  (I later was impressed to learned that one of the guys doing the back-breaking work is one of the owners of the winery.)  Then again, they’re probably cracking jokes because they know they’re getting paid four times what we make, at least. 

Because the tractor just barely fits down the rows, you better press yourselves up against those vines if you don’t want to get squashed.  Nobody warned me about this but like a tourist mindlessly wandering down an Italian street thinking its a sidewalk until a Mini comes flying past, I quickly learned.  Austin nearly got squashed a couple times too.  

Before he came to Hawke’s Bay, Austin was working in Auckland at a restaurant.  His interest in the wine industry is one of the main reasons he’s here.  Austin’s friends were a little unsure that he’d be able to handle “hard labor.”  We talked about this at length and both decided we’d much rather be picking fifteen to twenty times our weight in grapes in half a days work than to be sitting at a cubicle in an office without windows.  We decided we both know people who do much harder or far more boring work than this.  Kindergarten teachers.  Librarians.  I worked various temp jobs, filing, that were far worse.     

So no, I didn’t learn a whole lot today about picking grapes.  Not really.  But in talking to Austin I learned a) for some reason a lot of Lebanese live in Oklahoma b) the lead singer of Flaming Lips used to work at Long John Silvers even after he was touring internationally.  When I said that I didn’t think I knew who the Flaming Lips were, I learned that Austin can sing really well because he started singing “She don’t use Jelly.”  Then I remembered I did know who Flaming Lips were but I just had no idea they were from Oklahoma City.  

And then it was time to go home.  

Now, I’m too tired to even edit this or revise it.  I just wanted to let you know how this girl’s first day on the grape-picking job went and to let you know that I did indeed survive.  Haven’t carked* it yet.       

* To “cark it,” I understand, means “to die” in this part of the world.    

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