They get up before dawn, fire themselves up with Turkish coffee and climb into a beaten-up Kolhoznik (jeep).
There are nine of them: six women and three men. Women are faster pickers than men, whereas men are better able to load the heavy boxes into the trucks as the day goes on.
The air is cool and they are all wearing several layers- mostly black; the older women, some in their sixties, wear long skirts, while the younger ones wear jeans. All are in rubber shoes or boots, ready for the mud.
They’ve been chosen by the owner of the vineyard because he has worked with them before- they got phonecalls, though the usual process is to meet in the village center where the vineyard owners pick out however many people they need for the grape-picking. Most are locals, but some of them have come all the way from Megrelia in western Georgia for the chance to make some money. They get paid "well" by the employers: 25 GEL per day, plus food and wine, which is the upper scale of what pickers can potentially earn. Among the crowd of eager workers in the village center, you sometimes see 12 and 14-year-olds who come along at the behest of their parents and grandparents, missing school to help earn their families some money. It’s illegal, but needs must with the long winter just around the corner.
Day one of the harvest: they’ve picked and packed three tons of grapes- green Rkatsiteli and red Saperavi. They make fast work of loading the boxes into the van; the air is heavy with wasps attracted by the sweet juice of squashed grapes, and the competition is high: this evening the head of the family of vineyard owners will drive the van to Tbilisi. If he’s lucky, he’ll sell the grapes the next day, though sometimes the process can take up to three days. In the meantime, the family’s second van will be loaded and driven to the capital with its own offering of the season. Each load can earn the family over GEL 4,000.
A few hours before sunset, the women and their host family lay out a plastic tablecloth and load it with home-made fare: bread, cheese, a cucumber-tomato salad sprinkled generously with parsley, boiled beef still on the bone, boiled cuts of fish, pickled flowers and whole heads of pickled garlic. They cool two 5L plastic bottles of new wine in a spring nearby while the men set to burning last year’s vine twigs ready for the skewered pork. They say vinewood is the only wood worth cooking meat on.
The smoke fills the air, cut through with rays of sunshine as the harvesters sit in the shade of a 200-year-old tree, soon joined by the mouth-watering aroma of the barbecue. The smell attracts a local stray dog, her ribs showing and eyes bright as she begs for scraps. The younger workers chat animatedly; the older ones sit quietly, their faces showing their exhaustion as they wait to eat, while the host family’s young children run helter-skelter through the nearby barren peach trees, catching mantis and oohing-and-ahhing at the dragonflies zipping between the branches.
The meat is ready and the feast begins; the long strips of ‘Dedas puri’ [bread] are broken with work-worn fingers, pieces of barbecued pork are stabbed with forks, wine is poured and the toasting begins: to God, the harvest, the workers, friendship, to Georgia and on.
And as the light begins to dim, the workers leave, with many thanks and begging off the offer to stay and drink longer, this even before the singing has begun, because they have more work to do tomorrow, starting early. As the sun is setting, the host family and their friends get the plates and glasses emptied; the rubbish is collected in bags (which the author then begs they not throw into the bushes- they comply, with an indulgent smile, though tomorrow’s fare will no doubt end up strewn around the countryside), and everything is packed in the vineyard owner’s jeep. They’ve left it late to leave: darkness falls and, though they know the way back through the maze of fields, the van loaded with grapes gets stuck in mud along the way, necessitating a trip to the nearby farm to beg use of their tractor. The van is soon freed and while the feast continues in the vineyard owner’s home, the three tons of grapes are driven to Tbilisi.
When the vines are clear of grapes for another year, the harvesters will move on to find another employer. Winter is a quiet time for them. Come summer, they’ll have peaches to pick here, cherries and plums. In other regions are other fruits as well as nuts. This is the fertile land of Georgia; a country based on an age-old tradition of agriculture, and these people are the ones who make it all happen; quietly, seriously, year-after-year. Next time you’re picking at a bunch of grapes- spare a thought for the harvesters.
By Katie Ruth Davies