This is the second of a three-part series chronicling Contributing Editor Anne Krebiehl’s experiences working harvest on the Mosel slopes. Read part one here and part three here.
It’s 8:00 a.m. and the sun has only been up for 15 minutes. I pulled on my hiking boots and met Kalli Höhlein, the vineyard manager. He introduced me to Christian, the foreman of the five-person Polish harvest crew, lanky young boys who speak no German apart from “guten morgen” (“good morning”).
They’re happy to make some seasonal money here at Immich-Batterieberg, just as their parents did before them. Many workers come to the same estates year after year. Christian is a regular, too.
I felt so happy and intensely alive in my muddy boots and dirt-caked leggings. There is beauty, peace and sanity in this kind of honest, time-honored work.
He manned the tractor and trailer with the big bins, while the crew and I went with Kalli in a Batterieberg-branded Land Rover. I was glad I wasn’t the one having to navigate this monstrosity of a car through these narrow village streets. But the drive was short, taking barely five minutes to travel the 1½ miles to the vineyard.
We picked Riesling in the Ellergrub, the estate’s steepest site of finely eroded blue slate. Between the site and the river is the B53 road, and that’s where we parked before boarding a Monorackbahn, a kind of monorail with a sputtering engine, one seat and one simple cargo rack. I sat as Kalli balanced up front to control the motor and the crew piled onto the back with some crates. In my possession: a bucket and a shiny, sharp new pair of secateurs.
Going up the monorail, at some points almost vertically rising along the steep slope, was a bit like riding a slow-motion rollercoaster. Kalli stopped the engine at one of the mid terraces. Everyone spread out quickly and took one row of single-stake vines.
Wild boars, which are also partial to ripe Riesling grapes, disturbed the ground in various areas, which made it much easier to slip. I had to keep my wits simply to not fall.
The vines at this level were not trained in wire trellises. Some along the lower reaches, closer to the road, had been trained, but up here each vine was on a single stake. One tall oak post supports each vine, and I needed their support to help navigate the slippery slope.
I found myself having to prop my bucket behind vines to keep it from tumbling down the mountain as I worked. It was not always successful, as I learned to everybody’s amusement the next day. Apparently, a tumbling bucket happens to all pickers at least once.
The site was stony, with brittle slate slivers that littered the ground. We were lucky to have vegetation that made standing easier. All of the estate vineyards are farmed organically, so no herbicides were sprayed leaving a whole host of greenery thriving alongside the vines. Wild boars, which are also partial to ripe Riesling grapes, disturbed the ground in various areas, which made it much easier to slip. I had to keep my wits simply to not fall.
I was amazed at how tiny the Riesling bunches were. Gernot Kollmann, the winemaker, later said that it was due to the age of the vines. They are more than 60 years old, ungrafted (they grow on their own roots rather than on rootstocks) and are of old clonal material, causing the grape bunches to be irregular and small. The topsoil was thin and poor. Most of the vine trunks had a diameter of just two inches, despite their age, because the slate bedrock curbed vigor.
I liked to tease the grapes out of the foliage and snip them off. Sometimes, I had to stretch as far as I could reach, as most of the vines were way taller than me, with tiny bunches peppering hard-to-reach parts of the plant.
That was the easy part.
The tough part was carrying the basket between the vines and terraces without losing my balance, slipping or spilling grapes. Of course, I landed on my derrière a few times, but I never lost any grapes. We moved fast, and lunch break arrived in no time.
Then it was back up into the vineyard, now bathed in brilliant, beautiful sunshine and offering a majestic view of the Mosel. I felt so happy and intensely alive in my muddy boots and dirt-caked leggings. There is beauty, peace and sanity in this kind of honest, time-honored work. That’s easy for a visitor like me to say. I don’t have to do this backbreaking work for a living, forced to come here during winter to prune vines or in the summer to mow down weeds.
But even Kalli, who does this year-round, attested to the intrinsic groundedness of his work. He told me how he loves the way that the clouds reflect in the river. All the senses were keen—the smell of the herbs that I tread on, the sun and fresh breeze on my skin, the distant sound of cars far below and the much closer chirps of birds. When the sun caught the grapes at the right angle, they seemed translucent. I could make out the dark pips inside their greenish-golden pulp, the taste fresh, vivid and sweet.
At around 5 pm, we had picked the entire Ellergrub. While we were picking, Christian and Kalli emptied our small crates and buckets, carried the grapes to the monorail, transported them down to the road and loaded them into the bins on the trailer.
I climbed back down to the street. Walking on flat, even ground was a relief. I was exhausted and certain that I would have hellishly sore muscles the next day. The best feeling was that sometime next year, I will be able to taste some of the wine I helped to harvest, and even keep some to taste over years to come.
They say that joy is not only experiential, but anticipatory. How true. The Germans even have a word for that: vorfreude.