At the end of my first week harvesting grapes, I got an email from my friend Josh. “So,” he asked, “Are you a naturally gifted grape picker?” Not quite. I wasn’t half bad, but in those first few days it seemed that more often than not, my partner and I weren’t the fastest workers in the ‘yard. I admit, sometimes it was the Italian lessons and taste testing (self-designated quality control) that slowed us down. But sometimes it wasn’t us; it was the row! If your row had tons of grapes on it while the others had gaps without leaves or fewer grapes, it took longer to cut. Likewise, the weaker rows that had lots of rotten, dried up grapes mixed in with the good ones took more time, as you’d have to cut or flick off the bad ones with your clippers before putting them in your cavaña.
One morning, I was working with Alessio and he commented, “You know, we are the slowest ones, but really, I don’t care. Anyway, we got the worst row.” Depending on how you looked at it, he was right. Our row was bursting with grapes while those around it were relatively sparse. This got me thinking: if grapepicking were to become the curling of the Summer Olympics (okay, Autumn Olympics), you would be judged on much more than blind speed. First of all, you’d definitely be judged on difficulty of course; you’d be rewarded for having a row with more total grapes and more rotten-healthy clusters. Likewise, you’d get points for creativity and difficulty of performance. Well, we were both using what Alessi dubbed the “chicken leg” technique of sitting on either side of the cavaña to relieve the back, and he was adeptly cutting grapes while taking drags of a cigarette. (Leaving butts in the vineyard was commonplace, which definitely rubbed me the wrong way. That can’t be good for the baby grapes.) Plus, we were totally in sync and this was, after all, a synchronized doubles event. Finally, you’d get major deductions for grapes missed, and we were quite thorough.
While I was an Olympic grapepicker in my own mind from Week 1, it seems it took me a while to earn the approval of seasoned pickers. I was just clipping along one afternoon, when Joisha said, “Jaclyn, at first you have difficulty, but now, you are vendemmiatrice!” Vendemmiatrice is the word Emma came up with (-trice being a feminine suffix) when I suggested that she was a “vendemmiaista.” That same evening, out of nowhere, Eric said, “Today, you try Jaclyn. Yes, today, you were fast.” So, maybe I wasn’t a natural; I guess there’s a grape-picking learning curve.