The highlight | Chile
Harvesting grapes in Chile’s Colchagua Valley.
The most important thing to keep in mind when harvesting grapes is to cut through the vine, not your finger. This nugget of advice is about the only instruction our group gets from our guide before he sets us loose to join a group of female workers already stripping chardonnay grapes from the vines at Viu Manent, a 78-year-old winery in Chile’s Colchagua Valley, about 80 miles south of Santiago. We had arrived at this section of the vineyard via covered horse-drawn carriage (a common tourist conveyance in Chile’s wineries) at around 10am, and already the sun’s strong March rays are causing sweat stains to blossom on the workers’ shirts.
As black-and-white birds screech and circle overhead, I tie on an apron, affix a paper card to my belt that will serve as a tally for how many kilos of grapes I harvest, don my cloth gloves with rubber fingers, grab a pair of sharp garden shears and claim a row of vines drooping with heavy clusters of grapes.
It’s early in the harvest season, which in Chile is February through May, when the climate is dry and hot, so the grapes have not yet been picked over. I drop my heavy wooden bucket on the ground under a bulbous section of vine and aim my shears for the stem above a huge grape cluster. Rather than pinch the stem with my fingers and cut above or below them (surely a one-way ticket to the hospital), I lightly cup the bottom of the heavy cluster with one hand (so as not to squish the grapes) and cut the stem with the other. The grapes drop into my hand and I toss them gently into the bucket.
I repeat this cupping-cutting-tossing motion 15 times before I fill up my bucket, then squat to pick it up and carry it to the waiting bin, into which I struggle to lift and dump my grapes. A worker inspects my harvest to make sure no grapes are crushed, then stamps my card with the Viu Manent insignia. I, of course, am not getting paid for my work (in fact, you’ll pay a fee for this experience), but the full-time grape pickers earn 30 cents per kilo of grapes they harvest, which in a seven-hour day can earn them $180 per day, according to our guide. Not bad money, even though the work only lasts a few months.
At the rate I’m going, I’m glad I’m not getting paid. After my third trip to the bin, my back is aching and sweat is stinging my eyes. The other workers are of much hardier stuff than I: They chat amiably while hoisting their buckets effortlessly onto their heads and throwing the grapes into the bin without breaking conversation. They harvest about four buckets to my every one. About 45 minutes in, I’ve adopted a much more pleasant routine: Pluck a grape from the vine, pop it in my mouth, savor its tart and lightly sweet taste as I gaze at the surrounding mountains, slowly cut a cluster of grapes into my bucket, eat another grape.
Soon we hop back in the carriage for a tour of Viu Manent’s 627 acres, followed by a wine tasting and, the best part, lunch under an arbor heavy with grapes at the vineyard’s Rayuela Wine & Grill. As we dig into delicious whole fish and grilled meats, I sip a peppery carménère, literally the fruits of someone else’s labor years ago.
More to do
Where to caffeinate
Translating to “coffee with legs,” café con piernas is a common style of Santiago coffeehouse where women in short skirts or bikinis (hence, the legs) serve surprisingly delicious café cortado.
Where to eat
Within the 140-year-old building that houses the chaotic, fish-heavy Central Market lies a gem of a restaurant, Donde Augusto. A potent pisco sour (the national Chilean cocktail) is a must, along with whatever fish is on special. Ismael Valdés Vergara, 900, Santiago.
Where to stay
The rooms at the W Hotel Santiago are sleek, luxurious and decked out in jewel tones, and the hotel’s location is central to Santiago’s biggest sites (rates average $359/double, starwoodhotels.com).
GET THERE The 80-mile drive from Santiago to the Colchagua Valley takes about two hours by car. Tours at Viu Manent, which can include grape harvesting and wine tasting, can be custom-arranged; contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Round-trip flights from Chicago to Santiago start at $1,100 in April.
Writer’s trip courtesy of Wines of Chile.