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A Certain Sparkle

Every year, old friends reunite in the rolling hills of France’s Champagne region to pick grapes, sing songs, and keep ancient harvest traditions alive. It’s so much fun, you can taste it.

A feeling of stillness, vibrating with anticipation, greets me in Champagne, the renowned wine-growing region about 90 miles east of Paris. Harvest is about to begin, and grapes hang voluptuous on the vines. The day’s heat is fading to silky cool as I, trying to shake off the kinks of travel, step into the rippling green vineyards. The place is deserted, quiet. Everyone is inside, gathering energy for the burst of activity they’ve been working toward all year.

Tomorrow, here in the hilltop village of Hautvillers, I will join in the vendanges, the grape harvest. This ritual has been going on for centuries, since Romans brought the first grape cuttings.

Tonight, I work my way up toward the village, through a maze of small plots that have been handed down and divided among families until some are just a few short rows. The chalky soil is so pale, it looks like snowdrifts. I spot the two red grape varieties—pinot noir and pinot meunier—and the lone white, chardonnay, that are blended to make a classic champagne.

Hautvillers (“oh-vee-LAY”), home to 790 champenois (Champagne-region residents), is made up of narrow streets lined with neat stone houses iced in buff-colored stucco. Pink and orange geraniums spill from window boxes. Above almost every doorway an iron sign juts out, silhouetted against the sky. One shows a barrel maker hard at work; others depict characters pruning vines and a fireman ascending a ladder, clues to who resides within.

But winemaking in its various aspects is the dominant theme on the signs, which is no surprise. This is the town where Dom Pérignon himself served as abbey cellar master three centuries ago. And today, Hautvillers counts some 30 family winemakers, who, like the rest of Champagne’s 4,700 récoltants-manipulants (grower-producers), are mostly unknown in the United States.

More than 75 percent of the bubbly we drink comes from the big champagne houses: Veuve Clicquot, Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouet, Piper Heidsieck, and Nicolas Feuillate. The big names buy, rather than grow, most of their grapes. The récoltants-manipulants, on the other hand, make wine only from grapes they grow themselves. They are just starting to gain notice in the United States for their wines’ distinctive style or embodiment of a particular terroir. Tomorrow, I’ve got a rendezvous with one of these winemaking families, the Bliards. I have come not to drink—well, not only to drink—but to work. And eat. And laugh. And sing.

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The next afternoon, I report to the Bliard winery and cellars, wedged into a hillside along Rue des Buttes. It’s quite a contrast to the crystal chandeliers and hushed salons I had seen on an earlier visit to Moët & Chandon. In the equipment-cluttered courtyard, I encounter Marie-Odile and Vincent Bliard, both in their 50s. They’re organizing supplies—a crate of apples from their tree, tomatoes from their garden, piles of lettuce from a farmer friend—to feed the army of 20 pickers mustering from around northern and western France and Belgium for the annual event.

By law, all champagne grapes are picked by hand, but few families keep up the tradition of housing and feeding their pickers, the vendangeurs. The Bliards are an exception. Marie-Odile runs the kitchen; Vincent oversees the harvest and pressing. The crew will bunk either in Vincent and Marie-Odile’s home or across the street, with Vincent’s parents.

“We live like a big family,” Vincent tells me in the courtyard. “We all sit at the same table, eat the same food, drink the same wine. We all sleep—well, we don’t all sleep in the same bed,” he says with a grin, “but it’s not like the workers stay in a shed and the boss is in a château!”

By aperitif time, most of the group has arrived. We sip Bliard champagne from squat glasses, and I mingle with the pickers, who range in age from 15 to 70, a total of eight women and 12 men. They’ll be paid a minimum wage for the harvest, but they’re not farmworkers. Our group includes a cop, a cook, a graphic artist, an ex-sailor, a retired banker, a solar project manager, a supermarket cashier, a sales specialist, an educator, and an artisanal ice cream maker. It’s like the casting call for a French version of the Village People. What’s more, these folks return every year to spend their vacations toiling in the vineyards.

Being the nervous American newbie, I ask Marie-Odile how I should prepare for picking grapes. “I tell vendangeurs they need to bring three things,” she replies: “their boots, their towel, and their courage.”

Courage. In French, that word means “mettle” more than “bravery,” but it still rattles around ominously in my dreams until the alarm shocks me awake before dawn. At 7, there’s coffee, bread, and Marie-Odile’s plum jam laid out in the winery’s modest tasting room, which serves as harvest headquarters. Each picker enters and plants a double kiss on everyone’s cheeks, including mine. At first, I’m startled, accustomed to the famous French reserve. But among this crew, it’s as if social classes and formality don’t exist. One vendangeur even pulls me aside and coaches me to use the familiar form of “you” when I address my fellow pickers in French, a form generally reserved for children, pets, and intimate friends.

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Outside, it’s barely light, and fog lies across the lowlands. We cram into white, unmarked panel vans to head for the vineyards. Crouched between crew members and boxes of clippers, I feel like I’m deploying on an Ocean’s Eleven caper.

Crews are embarking in similar white vans throughout Hautvillers, so we have to navigate a vendanges traffic jam before we arrive at Les Garennes (Wild Rabbits), a vineyard just south of town. The Bliards are among the rare organic growers in Champagne. They cultivate 11 acres scattered in 20 different locations. That dispersed land is an advantage, though. Each plot’s grapes have different characteristics—perfect for champagne, which is typically an artful blend of wines.

“This vineyard is my father’s favorite,” Vincent tells me, “the first one he planted after he was married, in 1954.” Though Vincent went off to get an engineering degree, something, he can’t quite say what, drew him back into wine. Perhaps his father, Jean, knew what he was doing when he named Vincent after the patron saint of winemakers. “My birthday is exactly nine months after the festival of St. Vincent,” the son says, raising a suggestive eyebrow.

Vincent directs me to Pierre, a bearded 30-year vendanges veteran, who helps manage the pickers. He’s a retired Belgian banker in his 60s whose belly hints at a fondness for beer. Pierre pairs me up with Clémentine, from Normandy, who wasn’t even born when Pierre first harvested for the Bliards.

She and I grab baskets and sécateurs, clippers similar to pruning shears, and start picking our way up opposite sides of a nearly vertical row. Clémentine shows me how to block my panier (basket) with one foot, so it doesn’t somersault down the hill. We help each other find hidden stems snarled among the vines and retrieve bunches that tumble onto each other’s side of the trellis.

This morning, we’re picking chardonnay grapes. They are juicy and sweet, and I catch many of my fellow workers nibbling them. But amid the sweetness, you can taste the zing of acidity that will make for a beautifully balanced champagne. These are some of the priciest wine grapes in the world, valued at around $3 a pound.

While we work, Clémentine and I chat about movies—“I love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind!” she tells me—and we both declare our fondness for the French balladeer Francis Cabrel. Then I ask, “Do you know, ‘Oh, my darlin’ …’?”

“Oh, my darlin’!” she continues, belting out her namesake song. “Oh, my darlin’, Clementine!” we sing, laughing so hard I almost snip my finger.

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As my small plastic panier fills up, porters come to replace it, always with a polite “Merci,” as I hand over my haul. Now and then a cry of “Panier!” floats over the vines from a picker awaiting a new basket.

My back soon aches from bending, and my thighs burn from squatting to clip the lowest bunches. My hands are sticky and swollen, stained brown. I learn new French vocabulary: cloque (blister) and pansement (bandage). Courage, I think to myself.

Vincent’s father, 83-year-old Jean Bliard, scampers up and down the steep rows like a goat. Jean inspects the vines, picks up full baskets, and nips off bad grapes as paniers are emptied into 50-kilo cases. “Champagne, c’est mon médicament préféré,” he tells me, “my favorite medicine.” Seeing the results of this regimen, I resolve to “medicate” myself with wine more often.

I don’t have to wait long. At 9:15, work stops for the casse-croûte (literally, “break crust”), a hearty morning snack complete with red or rosé wine. Crew members overturn empty cases and top them with a crimson-checked tablecloth. Others unpack cheeses, pâtés, and sausages that we layer onto fresh-cut chunks of bread. Vincent lights a crackling bonfire of pruned vine runners to counter the damp morning air.

After eating squares of chocolate that we break from big bars, we move on to harvest two more plots before returning to the winery for lunch. We troop into the tasting room, where bottles of rosé and red wine rest on an L-shaped table. Vincent’s sisters are both married to winemakers—one in Bordeaux and one in Languedoc—so even these wines come from family.

We pass around platters of tomatoes and cucumbers from the Bliards’ garden, followed by potée champenoise—a local specialty of ham hock, smoked sausage, cabbage, and carrots braised in a hearty broth. “I try to serve rich, warming foods like soups, stews, braised meats,” Marie-Odile explains, “to fortify the workers.” After the cheese course, we tuck into plum far, a custardy cake similar to clafouti. It’s made with plums from the family tree, of course.

All the diners have their own napkins, rolled, tied, and labeled with their names on bits of paper. At the end of the meal, Marie-Odile holds up the basket where they’re kept, and everyone makes a game of lobbing napkins into it.

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It’s not easy to return to work after a two-hour lunch, but the crew heads off, while Vincent and Francis—marking his 27th year as a vendangeur—stay behind to press the morning’s grapes. I seize the opportunity to join them, to give my back and blistered thumb a rest.

Pressurage consists of gently squeezing out the purest, clearest juice from the grapes, a process that takes hours. The traditional machine, a pressoir, looks like a circle of unpainted picket fence, held together with iron bands. The chardonnay grapes we just picked—more than two tons of them—are piled into this corral, and hydraulics slowly apply pressure. Juice flows between the slats, then down a little stainless steel moat into holding tanks below floor level. Francis collects a glass of juice for me. It’s a tad cloudy and surprisingly sweet, but within weeks that sugar will turn to alcohol.

Every half hour, Vincent and Francis open the pressoir and use short-handled pitchforks to turn over the grapes, heaping them toward the center of the press. The first portion of the juice, which is clearer and sweeter, is destined to become champagne; 80 percent of it, the cuvée, goes into a higher-quality wine that can age longer than the wine made with the remaining 20 percent. The second portion of the juice will be distilled into fine (similar to grappa) or go into ratafia, a blend of grape juice and distilled spirits.

What’s left behind is known as le gâteau, “the cake.” And it does look like a gigantic green cake. “Nothing’s wasted,” Vincent tells me, as he and Francis shovel the gâteau into crates. The compressed grapes, like little deflated balloons, are destined for a distillery to make spirits; the pépins (seeds) will make grapeseed oil; and the stems will become compost.

Inside the Bliards’ cave, the three component wines will ferment and age separately in big oak barrels, some of which may be nearly 100 years old. In March, the wines will be blended, then bottled with additional sugar and yeast. As the yeast consumes the sugar, those famous bubbles form. The Bliards age their wine for three to seven years, sometimes longer, before it is disgorged, corked, and ready for sale. So we’ll have to wait a while before we can taste the result of this harvest.

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I head over to the courtyard, where Marie-Odile tends a huge cauldron of Bolognese sauce. The kitchen is in a corner of the tasting room, equipped with two stoves. But that’s still not enough to handle this crowd, so gas burners are set up outside for the largest pots.

“I’d never participated in the vendanges until I married Vincent in 1980,” Marie-Odile tells me. Now she’s organizing four meals a day, with the aid of two helpers. Most growers rely on caterers to feed their crews, or don’t feed them at all. “Only 10 to 15 percent of the winemakers hold traditional vendanges like we do, but it would be unthinkable to do it any other way,” she says. “The harvest is a very intense time, because this is the fruit of an entire year’s work. It has to be done well. It’s a bit crazy, but it’s also a very, very good time. I hope it will continue a long while like this.”

I offer to scour a few pots, and as I scrub, I wonder if the Bliards have ever read the fence-painting scene from Tom Sawyer. After all, they’ve convinced a lot of people to work very hard—and love it—for just over $12 an hour.

The crew returns from the vineyards at 6:30 and heads for the showers. On a good day, the group will have picked nearly nine tons of grapes, and the press will run late into the night.

Over a dinner of zucchini soup and spaghetti, patriarch Jean Bliard shares more of his secrets for a healthy life. “I always eat organic and never touch white bread,” he says.

“He works every day in the vineyards like a young guy!” his wife, Hélène, chimes in. She’s no slouch herself, still turning out desserts for the vendangeurs, despite having recently broken a hip after tumbling off a ladder while picking peaches.

After we devour chocolate profiteroles, Jean asks me if I’ve ever tasted fine. He opens a spigot on a small, barrel-shaped glass container and pours amber liquid into my glass.

The stuff is firewater. “If champagne is your medicine, what’s this?!” I sputter.

“Disinfectant!” Jean replies, without missing a beat.

“When you have a sore throat, just gargle with it,” Hélène advises, demonstrating with a swig. Then Vincent stands and asks the crowd, “Are your glasses empty?”

“Yes!” come a few shouts from folks anticipating a refill. “Good!” Vincent replies with a wicked grin, “Let’s play!” Everybody grabs a glass and we all squeeze in close. “We’ll do it slowly, so Gayle can learn,” Vincent instructs. They start singing, passing their empty glasses around in rhythm to the music. But at one point in the song, the pass is a fake. Instead of letting go of a glass, they yank it back, tap it on their left, then pass it to the right. Anyone who flubs is eliminated.

The song accelerates until glasses are flying around the table. I manage to outlast half the players but get booted when a particularly lightweight glass topples as I pass it.

The final two players are proclaimed dual champions. Everyone calls out, “Bonne nuit!” trades kisses, and heads for bed.

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On Sunday, Vincent declares a day off. Due to a patch of damp, cool weather, the remaining grapes aren’t as ripe as they need to be. We gather for a group photo around the Bliards’ green Land Rover pickup. Afterward, Vincent remains standing atop the truck’s hood. He pretends he’s going to jump into the mosh pit of vendangeurs clustered around. Hands go up, ready to catch him, and he launches himself into the laughing crowd. “I am nervous until the picking starts,” Vincent admits when he’s back on solid ground, “but then I can begin to relax.”

In the afternoon, Marie-Odile pulls out a stack of photo albums and the group pores over scenes from the 1980s, when grapes were collected in beautiful straw baskets; when Pierre looks svelte, with dark hair; and when, one year, red grapes for the rosé champagne were stomped by foot, just for fun.

I ask Jean about the first harvest he can remember. “I was a harvest baby,” he says, “born on the 30th of September, right in the midst of the vendanges. My parents squeezed a few drops of grape juice into my mouth. It was my baptism as a winemaker!”

After the team puts in seven days’ work harvesting from each of the Bliards’ plots, the last grape has been plucked and the pressoir is humming. It’s time for the cochelet, the harvest feast. Jean pops open bottles of rosé champagne for the aperitif, and the kitchen crew passes hors d’oeuvres of cured sausage, pâté, and cornichons, along with a basket of fresh-cracked walnuts.

I clink glasses with Michel, a 40-year vendanges veteran from Belgium, who reveals, “I’ve been fighting cancer, but my doctor said I could come.” He takes a sip of champagne and glances around at the group. “Some things are better than medicine,” he adds, smiling.

The tables are decorated with flowers, grapes, and leaves. From the ovens, Marie-Odile pulls tarts made with onions and pungent Maroilles cheese. Platters with slabs of filet, roasted potatoes, and green beans follow.

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After the salad, there’s more Maroilles on the cheese plate, then Hélène’s crème caramel, served with biscuits roses de Reims, delicate, pink-colored, crunchy cookies traditionally dunked in champagne.

Then it’s time for a second dessert—and a serious moment. Hélène holds up a tart made from Bliard chardonnay grapes and tells the group that, 50 or 60 years ago, even though times were hard, they always celebrated the end of the harvest with a grape tart. “It’s the dessert of the vendanges,” she says.

“In those days, there was no meat; a meal was bread and onions,” Marie-Odile adds. “To have a tart was extraordinary.”

Once the tart is eaten and the dishes are cleared, Marie-Odile passes around songbooks the Bliards have put together, including classic French tunes plus others about the vendanges that family members have penned through the years.

One original song has tongue-in-cheek verses about each harvest task—picking, pressing, working in the kitchen—including a last stanza about the ultimate hardship of being the boss: “At breakfast, Vincent’s thinking, ‘Nothing interests these vendangeurs but eating and drinking!’”

We sing and sing, late into the night, pausing only for Vincent and Marie-Odile to present a bottle of champagne to each worker, with a huge Rehoboam (equal to six regular bottles) for Michel, who cradles it like a baby.

The group launches into a sweet, jaunty song from the 1970s, La Ballade des Gens Heureux (“The Ballad of the Happy Folks”). Out of the blue, there’s a verse that seems to hold a message just for me:

Journalist, for your first page
You can write whatever you choose.
I’ll offer you a fantastic title:
The Ballad of the Happy Folks!

It’s true, I realize. That just might be the perfect title for this tale. A

Photos by Marie Hennechart. This appeared in the November/December 2012 issue. Read Gayle Keck’s primer on how to taste champagne

6 Champagnes to Try
We asked Emmanuelle Chiche, champagne importer and managing partner of the Bubble Lounges in New York and San Francisco, to recommend some of her favorite bottles. Here’s a sampling. You’ll find many available for purchase at wine-searcher.com.

1996 MOËT & CHANDON “DOM PÉRIGNON OENOTHÈQUE” BRUT CHAMPAGNE
This acclaimed wine pays tribute to the man credited with perfecting champagne in Hautvillers. From $270

1999 JACQUES SELOSSE V.O. GRAND CRU BLANC DE BLANCS EXTRA BRUT
Iconoclast grower-producer Anselme Selosse ages his component wines in small oak barrels and lets them tell him what they want to become. Chances are, they’ll be nothing like other champagnes you’ve tasted. From $255

1995 KRUG
A classic that will never go out of style. From $150

N.V. VILMART & CIE CHAMPAGNE CUVÉE RUBIS
A delicate, complex rosé that holds its own against a Dom Pérignon rosé. From $60

N.V. GASTON CHIQUET BLANC DE BLANCS GRAND CRU D’AŸ
An affordable and elegant wine from the family that started the grower-producer movement. From $44

N.V. LAURENT-PERRIER BRUT ULTRA
Laurent-Perrier has long been known for its “zero-dosage” wines, made without added sugar, a style that has been gaining buzz recently. From $40