The Zen of picking grapes in Avila Valley

Museums | | October 1, 2011 at 05:20
Rex the grape-picker

Rex the grape-picker

Since being back in the country, I”ve been trying to find work and like everyone knows, it”s not easy. Might even be said to be almost impossible for someone without a specific skill that”s in demand. That”d be me.

Following up on a tip from a family friend, and after submitting my resume, filling out a detailed application and going for an interview in my suit and tie, I managed to land a seasonal job picking grapes at a local vineyard in Avila Valley. The suit and tie was a little over the top, but my mom told me it always pays to dress and if nothing else, they”d remember the guy who came in a suit.

This year the owner of the winery John Salisbury decided that with the high unemployment rate, he would give Americans a chance to earn an honest hard-working wage. While I think this was very altruistic and I”m happy he did – otherwise I wouldn”t have a job – it”s been a bumpy ride.

We started with about 16 of us, mostly young men in their 20″s or late teens with a few others such as an older preacher and a spunky lady. On the first day we were issued a pair of gloves, some sheers and started cutting. Three Mexican guys who are part owners in the winery and very experienced grape cutters, jumped in and out of the

lines, showing us how to do it. On the job training. It was much harder and way more physically taxing than one might think. We were very slow compared to what Mr. Salisbury needed.

When we asked our crew chief what he thinks about working with a bunch of gringos, he said he didn”t mind but had warned Mr. Salisbury that it would take us about 3 days to get up to speed. But the grapes have to be picked and daily quotas met for the crusher. We were told to go faster and we did try. But believe me, this is not easy work. It”s a lot harder to cut the grapes embedded in a web of vines than I imagined.

At the end of the first day we had four crates done when we should have had ten. The next day we were told we needed to pick up the pace. I think we got six done that day. On the third day, they brought

in a team of Mexican pickers to speed things up. By Monday over half the “gringo” crew had been replaced. There are about 8 of us left. I somehow made the cut! I still had a job! So does the minister and the lady.

I was warned by Mr. Salisbury that the work is repetitive. It”s also extremely grueling. You have to appreciate every vegetable or piece of fruit you put in your mouth. And every glass of wine you drink. A lot of human sweat has gone into getting it to you.

Yellow Jacket Wasp

It”s by far the hardest job I”ve ever done and a far cry from scuba diving in Bali. Even drinking gallons of water and wearing a wet bandana and sun hut, I felt close to getting heat stroke a couple of times. From start to finish, all you do is cut grapes off the vine and put them into a box you lug around with you. And you have to be fast the entire time; there is no room for slacking. You”re lucky if it”s foggy in the morning because it keeps the temperature down. But not only does it get HOT in Avila Valley when the sun comes out, with it come the bees and yellow jackets. And they feed by the thousands on the grapes. You just have to try and ignore them and work through them in a Zen kind of way. Everyone has been stung or bitten at least once.

It”s hard keeping up with the Mexican migrant workers who”ve been doing this for years. But I must say that after a week, our (the Gringos”) speed is for the most part on par with them. There are a few speed demons out there that I try to avoid partnering with (each work one side of the vine) because they make me look bad. :)

The Mexican workers emphasize speed. We “green gringos” had been careful not to leave “Mummies.” Mummies (unpicked grapes) can mildew and cause problems for the vine. So the first two days we were cutting everything off which definitely slowed us down. The Mexicans tend to only cut the bigger clusters, often leaving good groups on the vine, but with only 3 or 4 grapes on them. We also cleaned out the leaves that fell into our boxes, while they tend to leave the cleaning for the sorters. We now realize how they manage to crank out 12 crates a day. I think our original crew of gringos might have done much better if we”d taken more shortcuts. But we were new and wanted to do it right. The key, of course, is to hit the right balance, knowing what is absolutely necessary and where you can speed up. It”s all about the Zen.

It”s an advantage that the slow people are gone because we actually hit our quotas now. We get paid 80 dollars a day and get to leave when the quota is met. But the hours are always long, especially if the sun is shining down hard. Which it usually is in sunny Avila Valley California.


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