Secrets and Truths: Picking Grapes With Alice

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My picking buddy from Oklahoma didn’t show up the other morning.  We were out a vineyard called Woodthorpe (pictured below), a good forty-five minute drive into the hills.  You had to drive past the Maori cemetery and the old wooden church, past ramshackle stucco houses, past a goat tied up on the bank before turning off down a long gravel road.  (The picture above is a view from the long gravel road.)  I figured Austin and his green gumboot van were lost so I paired up with someone new.  Her name is Alice–pronounced Al-ee-chay–because she’s from Lake Como, Italy. 

Alice normally picks with an old man named Hans.  Hans is originally from Amsterdam but has lived in Hawke’s Bay for the last twenty years.  At first I thought Hans was a bit crazy because every time anyone would say anything in English, he’d try to translate for Alice (who speaks perfect English) into what he truly believed was Italian but was really Spanish. 

“Got that?”  boss man Larry said as he pointed to the rows he wanted picked.

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“Comprend-day?” Hans would say to Alice.  “Comprend-day means do you understand in Italian, right Alice?” 

Alice smiled, “Comprendi, capisici,” nicely correcting him. 

After three days of picking with Hans, Alice would probably be used to this by now.

Because Austin was absent, Alice was nice enough to pair up with me and let Hans find another picking partner for the day. I was sort of afraid this would happen.   At the time I just didn’t quite know why.

The thing about picking grapes is that it’s really kinda weird.  You’re going along with your gloves and your clippers and all you’re doing is clipping bunches from the vine and throwing them into a white bin on the ground underneath the vine.  You have all these lush green leaves in your face and you can’t see whose face the voice on the other side of the vine belongs to.   We are like a whole bunch of people talking to each other with buckets on our heads or blindfolds over our eyes.  You can only see who’s down the row next to you, and that’s if you look up.  But you don’t look up.  You just focus on the grape picking.  You do this for hours.  All day long.  Sometimes you talk to the person you’re picking with and sometimes you don’t.  Sometimes you eavesdrop on others’ conversations if they’re within earshot or sometimes you just zone out and get lost in your thoughts.  Sometimes you hear people humming or singing.  For the most part of the morning it was just like this, Alice and me, two little dots among fifty others working in an immense three-hundred acre vineyard.

Over the course of the morning she slowly told me about how she came to New Zealand on her own after decided she didn’t want to marry her long-time boyfriend in Italy.  She got herself a working holiday visa, packed her bags and came over.  She works wherever she can and (although you wouldn’t guess it by looking at her) she absolutely loves to be outside.  She doesn’t have much experience working with grapes and neither do I.  

The only other experience I have is that once I had a grapevine in a pot on my balcony in Perugia.  My mom was in town visiting me and we saw these sticks in green bags at the hardware.  We were delighted when we found out they were grapevines.  It was March, so we bought one and planted it in a small pot, a little experiment to see if it would grow.  Sometimes I remembered to water it and sometimes I didn’t.  That summer it sprouted tiny leaves and when fall came, the leaves turned color and fell off.

One warm spring day the following year I went out to sweep off the scraps winter left on the balcony and prepare my pots for some plants.  The grapevine looked like nothing more than a sorry, brown twig.  I thought it had died that winter from the cold and from my consistent neglect. I was all prepared with a big black garbage sack to throw the grapevine away when I noticed tiny green buds, little leaves about to spring through and into life.  This was nothing short of miraculous to me, that a plant could look so dead but be so alive inside.  Seeing these leaves was a spiritual experience for me, kind of like when you’re sad and you suddenly see an unexpected rainbow.  At that time, my parents were going through a shocking divorce and there was a lot to lose faith about in life.  This little sign of growth meant something momentous to me.  It was a touch of grace, a sign of steadfast faith, an enormous relief to see that all wasn’t lost and that sometimes things aren’t as they seem.  Full of gratitude and humbled with the awesomeness of nature, instead of throwing it away, I repotted it into something more spacious and vowed to take better care of it. 

A few years later when my husband and I moved into a house with a yard, I repotted the grapevine again.  I tied it to a big stick so it could grow sturdy and strong.  My plan was to eventually plant it square into the ground, somewhere we would both take roots permanently.  I wanted to be able to see it every day and remember the special symbolism it held for me.  But apparently other plans were in store. 

One day our yellow lab escaped from the house and tore off with it–pot and all–dragging the whole plant into the middle of the yard, lording over it like it was the carcass of an animal he killed.  The whole scene was outrageous.  I’m running after the dog, he’s running from me like a naughty child and I’m fuming because he’s got my grapevine.  “Barney!  Put that down!”  Of course he pays me no mind.  So what did I do?  I laughed.  Then I went back in the house to get my camera.  This, I thought, will be the last time I see this grapevine alive.  So I snapped a picture.  It was of a smiling Barney, very pleased with himself for having annihilated my beautiful, leafy and healthy grapevine.  Nonetheless, I took my beloved grapevine and replanted it yet again, just in case. 

Again, she lived. 

Through winters, through moves, through my parents’ divorce and through Barney’s strangling, this little vine kept chugging along with life, regardless.

When I separated from my husband, I took my grapevine.  I had no idea what I was going to do with it, seeing how I’d intended to plant it at the new house we were building–the house I designed but would never actually live in or see complete.  I figured I’d find a place in the country somewhere and plant it there, firmly in the ground but in the end, I gave it away.  The last time I saw it, it seemed content to be growing up the side of a small cottage in the Umbrian countryside in a gigantic terracotta pot.  I was slightly heartbroken to part with it but happy to have seen it live to yield a few grapes.   

This was not the story I told Alice but this is why I was afraid to pick grapes with her.  I knew she would ask me about how I got here and I knew it would be the first time I’ve told an Italian, in Italian, my story. 

It’s never easy to know where to begin a story.  Each story always contains so many potential beginnings.  So many parts of a story can be snagged on a detail and before you know it you’re off an an irrelevant tangent, tangled up in another tale altogether.  I was relieved when Alice prompted my beginning by asking me why it was I spoke Italian so well.  I told her I was married to an Italian.  Because she was almost married to an Italian, this turned out to be the common thread we shared—refusing to live the life of an Italian wife.  She talked about how hard it was for her to see her older sister get married and struggle with trying to balance a career and a new baby.  She said she knew she didn’t want that for herself but that’s what would be expected of her if she married.  I told her about how I, too, faced similar pressures in the role of wife to an Italian in a tightly-knit Italian family.  I told her about how much I loved him, how much I loved his family, what a picture perfect, secure life we had together.  It was only after a few minutes of talking that I found myself unable to continue.  I stopped, stricken.  Here was someone who completely and totally understood me.  And she didn’t even know me.  Yet she experienced the same truth I had: you don’t leave someone because you don’t love them. 

It was a huge emotional trigger to retell my story in the language in which it happened.  In New Zealand, they would call this being “gutted.”  And I was.  Completely and totally slashed open.  It was one of those moments, and I don’t know if it’s just me or if everyone has them, when your life suddenly feels like it’s drowning you.  It floods at you from all directions, gushing, pouring, leaking in through cracks you didn’t even know were there and before you can catch your breath you’re swimming in the depths of it all, wondering when life got like this.  How did I get from there–the story I was telling–to here, crying my eyes out to a girl I just met, unable to properly wipe the tears off my face because of my dirt-covered gloves? 

Alice was quiet.  It was just the sound of our clippers, the grapes dropping into our bins and my sniffling.  Then she said, “You did the right thing.  You know you did because it could have been so much easier.” 

She gets it, I thought.  She totally gets it.  

Hans, however, was a different story.  He was inching down the row, moving closer and closer to us as the tractor approached to empty our bins.  He started hollering stuff at Alice, asking her how to say stuff in Italian.  “Nunca es demasiado tarde!” he yelled.  “Isn’t that how you say it’s never too late, Alice?”  

“Non e’ mai troppo tardi,” she said loudly back in his direction.

“Non e’ mai troppo tardi!” he yelled at the vines at the top of his lungs.  “Mai troppo tardi!”

“Can Hans understand Italian?” I asked in a whisper, in Italian.  I figured he must have seen me crying or maybe overheard bits and pieces of the story of my failed marriage.  Why else would he start yelling that out?  What else does Hans think he knows besides Italian? 

“No, I don’t think so.” she said.

After that, Alice and I talked about other things like wine and food and what it’s like to be in your late twenties without children when everyone you know has a husband or a baby or four kids or all of the above.  It felt good to be seen, despite those vines in our faces. 

At the end of the day, once the last row is emptied of grapes, you head back towards base, where the porta-loos are and where the cars are parked.  It’s the best part of the day because as you walk back, you stop to help gather the last few grapes yet to be picked.  Everyone is shoulder to shoulder, picking in unison, chit-chatting, listening, humming. 

Alice is next to me.  We are pushing back the leaves, looking for hidden bunches to snip.  “It feels like there are secrets in these vines,” I say.  “Secrets and truths.”

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One Girl’s Great New Zealand Grape-picking Adventure

March is New Zealand’s September.  Days become noticeably shorter, light begins to shift and the mornings take on a new found crispness.  For the first time in five months you jump out of bed and straight into your fuzzy warm robe and slippers.  You wrap up and immediately get the hot water kettle going, anxious for the sun to work its incubating magic.

This is what the end of summer feels like, in March.  I don’t get it, really.  My whole being is off kilter, my Norths and Souths flip flopped.  Here, South is cold, North is warm.  Christmas is in summer and Easter is in autumn.  A few weeks ago it was back to school for local kids.  I can hardly keep up.  My mind continues to reset itself to a new calendar while my body picks up on the subtleties of change.  That air of promise and newness that September holds?  It’s palpable and very real.  I always equated it to the nostalgia of sharpened number two pencils or the beat of a snare drum at a football game.  I thought the feeling was synonymous with September, less about the actual season.  But it isn’t.  That settled feeling fall has, the atmosphere full of promising change, it’s real.  It happens.  Even in March.  Even without football.

Like September in the Northern hemisphere, March in the Southern hemisphere means harvesting, in this region especially.  “Sunny” Hawke’s Bay, is known for its Northern California-like temperate climate.  Citrus plants produce year-round and everything grows like mad thanks to the perfect blend of super-intense sunshine and just the right amount of rain. Apples, pears, peaches, corn, bell peppers, nearly everything is ripe and ready.  Especially the grapes.  They dangle like gems, row after glorious row of leafy vines, striating the surrounding valleys and hillsides.

And just like California, they make excellent wines here.

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It’s ironic to me that in all my ten years in Italy I never once picked a grape but the first time I’m in New Zealand, I get myself a grape-picking gig.  I’ll be picking for a winery called Te Mata (pictured above), working alongside local pensioners (how hard can it be?!) as well as traveling tourists looking to make a buck on their holiday.  The locals do it for extra pocket change, seeing it as a chance to socialize, not because they actually need the money.  And because “the money” is no more than a pittance, I have my suspicions that the tourists do the work for the same reason I will be, purely for the experience.  (There certainly won’t be any free wine out of it!)

If the weather continues as is, we will start March 11th.  This means a seven o’clock start and a six o’clock finish (I think).  This means I’ll wear my oldest clothes with holes in them, freeze my bum off for a few hours in the morning, sweat in the midday sun, scarf down a quick sandwich during our half-hour lunch break before counting down the hours to quitting time.  All this, every day, for SIX weeks; rain or shine.  (Weekends too!)

Needless to say, I’m a bit concerned.  I’ve never done anything like this before and I’ve certainly never done “hard labor” before.  (Unless you consider waiting tables at a steak house while in college “hard labor.”)  I’ll be wearing gloves, for Pete’s sake.  My hands are probably going to go into cramp spasms.

When I told my mother I’d be picking grapes for six weeks her response was dry.  There was no hint of excitement in her voice, no admiration for my sense of adventure.  It was just a flat,  Let me know how that goes, Regina.  This response is such a classic mother-daughter technique.  I muster some courage to do something probably pretty stupid and not at all a valuable use of my time and my all she has to do is sigh to remind me who I am.  One huff made by my mother and I’m immediately reminded of how ridiculous an endeavor this might prove to be.  She knows it and I know it: I have no business going out there and picking grapes.  It might sound romantic, but really, we all know the truth: I’m going to hate it.  Still.  I’m doing it.  For reasons mostly unknown, even to me.

For some reason, my mother’s comment reminds me of my youngest sister Jenny on her first day of kindergarten.  She was so excited to be heading off on the bus, her first full day of school.  In the afternoon when she got off the bus and my mother asked her, “So, how was it?”  My sister snarled back, “We didn’t even get a snack.”  Luckily, we have all this on video.  Jenny stomps down our street, literally dragging her purple backpack behind her while my mother follows slowly, chuckling on tape.

So let me just say, for the record (and especially if you’re taping this, Mom), I’m not going into grape-picking with the naivete of an excited kindergartener on her first day of school.  I don’t expect to get any snacks (besides all the grapes I can eat) and I don’t expect I’ll really even like it.  What I do expect, is to come home with a lot of red stains, tired hands and perhaps a little perspective.  I might even be fortunate enough to come home with a lot of good stories which I plan on posting right here for your reading enjoyment.  Wish me luck.  (And please Lord, no rain.)