WWOOF Work: Grape Harvest
I arrived at Castello di Potentino on a Wednesday afternoon in October 2016, along with a fellow wwoofer named Graham. I had coincidentally met Graham on the connecting Paganico bus that was travelling from Grossetto train station to Castel del Piano.
Graham had overheard me asking the driver about getting to Castel del Piano. That, and the fact that I was a backpack-carrying Asian girl, probably set off some hints that I might be a fellow wwoofer trying to make her way to the Castle.
We quickly got to chatting about our travel plans, and musing about what our experience might be like wwoofing at Castello di Potentino.
Once the bus dropped us off at Castel del Piano, Graham called Charlotte Horton, our WWOOF host, to let her know that we were ready for a pick up.
A few minutes later, a wwoofer named James pulled up in the Castle car and, without any need for introductions (we seriously looked like tourists), called us over to hop in.
During the drive to Castello di Potentino, we learned from James that there were already 14 wwoofers at Castello di Potentino. Graham and I would make it 16.
James was from England and had wwoofed at the Castle a few years ago. He had been so inspired by the experience that he was now in the process of setting up his own vineyard back home.
As we got closer and closer to the Castle, the views of the Tuscan hills became more and more magnificent. We just couldn’t stop marvelling at the beauty of the rolling hills that were dotted with endless trees and golden vineyards.
We arrived at the Castle and everything I had previously read about it was now before me — the steep, gravelly path that zig-zagged up to the front, black-iron gate; the peaceful courtyard with its arched entryway; and the Castle itself, as old as at least 1042, but restored to its current opulent state in 2000.
Graham and I dropped off our bags in the wwoofers’ flat, and made our way up to the outdoor swimming pool to meet some of our wwoofmates. But, as is usually the case with working the land, we were soon thrust into the whirlwind of the day’s remaining work.
The first couple of days were intense — more so than usual, we were told. Rows of grapes had to be picked from the vineyard and piled into crates.
Our job was to spot each bunch for mold and prune off unsuitable pieces (or toss the whole thing on the ground if they were at the point of no return).
Time was of the essence though, and finding a balance between quality control and quickly filling up the crates became our challenge.
Charlotte later explained that the grapes were more moldy than usual this season due to a hail storm that had blown through the area during the summer. The damage it had caused had significantly affected the quality of this year’s yield.
The hail had riddled many of the leaves with holes, causing them to turn brown instead of their usual bright green. As a result, the leaves didn’t photosynthesize properly and the grapes around them didn’t ripen as scheduled.
Dealing with moldy bunch after moldy bunch got pretty demoralizing on the soul. Whenever a perfect handful of firm, smooth grapes was found, it felt like you had just hit the big jackpot.
Some wwoofers passed the time chatting with each other, while others listened to music on their iPods. Being a new wwoofer, there was a lot of “getting to know you” questions being asked and answered.
After filling up the number of crates we needed, Uran drove up and down the rows of vines in the tractor, while a few wwoofers helped to lift the grape-filled crates and arrange them in the back of the tractor.
Next, we went to the cantina for processing. Here, we, became a wwoofie, grape-processing assembly line. Step one — De-stem grapes. Toss each crateful of grapes into the de-stemming machine. Move said grapes around to ensure they slide down the chute in an orderly manner.
Step two — Move de-stemmed grapes to barrels. One brave soul climb into vat where the de-stemmed grapes have travelled to via tube from de-stemming machine. Brave soul pass buckets of grapes to wwoofmate standing at the ready outside vat door. Wwoofmate throw grapes into one of two barrels.
Step three — Stomp away! Shoeless wwoofer climb into barrel. Stomp and squish down on those grapes, getting as much juice out as possible. Finish ‘er off by using wooden blocks and metal crank akin to medieval torture device to squeeze out the remaining juice.
Step four — Clean up. Remove leftover grape skins from barrels into garbage bags. Use wwoofie strength to haul said (heavy) garbage bags down the hill. Leave at bottom of hill for ship off.
Repeat the process!
At the end of the work day, clean up also meant carrying, washing and scrubbing what felt like a billion crates afterwards (slight exaggeration). Finally, we swept and hosed down the floor of the cantina.
The whole process was a messy endeavour. You just had to accept that your clothes, feet, hands and hair were now one with the grape juice.
After washing up and helping to prepare dinner, I was pretty much ready to fall asleep at the table once the food was served. I couldn’t even make it to grape pudding dessert the first evening, which was a shame after I had helped de-seed an unholy amount of grapes.
After just two days of working, I was ready for a break! I knew that I was just acclimatizing to a new way of living, and that it would all get easier with a matter of time.
Being treated to spectacular views of the vineyards and surrounding hills throughout the work day made getting down and dirty a whole lot easier.
We had a luxurious weekend of relaxing and by the end of it, I was ready to get back to wwoofie work. Well, I definitely got what I asked for!
>> Read the next post in the WWOOF Italy series: WWOOF Work: Etruscan Winemaking