My entry to the Young Wine Writer of the Year Award (UK) which placed as Runner Up.
The True Face of Harvest
Carlos wiped the dripping sweat from his brow. His stout index finger brushed his right eye, and the vinegar he had doused on it stung the crease of his eyelid. He winced and rubbed his grimy shirt against his damp forehead, cursing the wasp that stung him an hour before.
It was 10.30am on a mid March morning in Mendoza, and already 38 degrees centigrade. They still had at least three hours of picking to do. At the very thought of it, Carlos’s neck exuded more drops of salty sweat down his spine.
The cuadrillero [leader of the grape pickers] walked past him and rasped a brash cough in his direction – a reminder that he needed to pick up the pace. Carlos had been a grape picker for 36 years, but now at 46 he was starting to slow down a bit. He felt a pang of jealousy at the half dozen extra chips the younger pickers were collecting by the end of each day.
As he slid his hand behind the next bunch of grapes he felt for the stalk, used the knife to sear into the edge of it and tore it off as quickly as he could, pulling a few leaves and the grape cluster into the bucket. The leaves crunched and disintegrated as he pulled them back out. He knew the cuadrillero wouldn’t accept any more leaves in his bucket, and he was already on tender hooks after getting caught by the authorities last week. That had been a bad day… Carlos blushed at the memory.
Carlos is Bolivian. His name isn’t even Carlos, it is Cauac, but Carlos sounds more Spanish. He came from a rural village in Southern Bolivia, but had been working the harvest in Mendoza since his Uncle brought him and his two older brothers down when he was 10. He’d spent most of his life living in Argentina working the different harvests, but that didn’t seem to matter now. A crackdown on illegal workers meant the vineyards had to have Argentine pickers, and there was no decent work left for workers like Carlos – even if they had spent their lives in the fields.
For three mornings Carlos had waited with hoards of other illegal workers on the street corner in Ugarteche at the beginning of harvest. Usually he would have been picked up by a cuadrillero within the first hour of the first day waiting, if he hadn’t already been asked to come back from the year before. But things were harder now and three mornings waiting had made him think it might be his last harvest. When some Argentine pickers went on strike asking for more pay, a flustered cuadrillero had come on the third morning looking for more workers. He took Carlos to the vineyard with 11 others in the back of his big pick-up truck without even asking him for his papers. They’d just agreed a price and Carlos had promised he knew how to pick.
When they arrived the fair-skinned vineyard owner had looked at him suspiciously, but the cuadrillero had assured him they were all ok. Three hours later that afternoon the authorities barricaded the vineyard and started asking the owner for papers. Carlos had sat quietly in between the vines waiting. He could hear the tense conversation. He had tried to stay as still as possible, sitting under the baking midday sun. He almost held his breath for fear of making too much noise while fat flies buzzed around his sticky, perspiring body. Carlos wasn’t hiding – it was too late for that – he just didn’t want to owner to take it out on him in particular.
Cautious but curious, he’d looked up from his cap. From the corner of his eye he could see the owner paying the authorities money, more bills than he’d ever seen in one bunch. As they left and the owner turned around to direct the pickers back to work, Carlos was sure he’d personally received an angry glare. Was he worth it? Carlos tried to do a good job picking for the rest of that week but his face stung red with shame every day. He was relieved to be at a new pick.
Filling his bucket, his knees cracked as he rolled to a half standing position and threw the container on his shoulder. He ran to the truck as quickly as he could and after a nod from the cuadrillero’s wife, he tipped the grapes into a bigger crate and collected his chip before running back to the vines.
As he passed the truck again he caught a glimpse of a poster thrown in the back. It was a large picture of the Harvest Queen at the local harvest festival. She was beautiful. Carlos had never seen such fine features and pearly white skin; her blond hair sat in perfect curls on top of her head and a sparkling crown held them together like a golden bird’s nest. He looked down to her shoulders and the ripe moons that marked the top of her breasts. The poster cut off there and he started to think about his own wife, Maria Jose, who was doing the apple harvest in Tunuyan.
After 30 years together he loved her, but in the same way he loved his mattress that had holes and lumps in it. It didn’t matter if it was perfect – that was what he had. He couldn’t remember the day when Maria Jose had had breasts as buoyant as the Harvest Queen’s, and he was sure she’d never had teeth so white.
He remembered one day 15 years ago when they had both been working the grape harvest at a small family winery. After working at the same place for six weeks picking the different grapes, the owner had given all the field workers an asado (BBQ) lunch and opened some wine. He could remember the glow on Maria Jose’s face as she drank that wine from a real glass. It had turned her teeth a purple black and he thought she was being crude and drinking too much, but he daren’t say anything because he’d never seen her feel so prized. Maria Jose was not an elegant woman, nor did she usually pretend to be, but that afternoon on the broken wooden picnic table under the olive trees she had smiled and drunk wine as if she was the light of the party. She was the only woman on the table and even though he didn’t think any of the other pickers had noticed her female presence, to her, he could tell, she felt special for one moment.
Cauac thought about the two children she’d given him and how proud he was they were learning to write. He’d always thought they’d join him in the vineyards picking and that maybe one day they’d have a small piece of land together. But that seemed so impossible now, and he was not much of a dreamer.
He used to hear stories in the vines of how pickers had sometimes earned enough chips to buy a couple of their own rows. However those stories were less and less these days. Pickers now talked about how they wanted to own soya, but that didn’t need to be picked.
As he knelt back down in the vines, he groped another bunch of dark sticky grapes. He looked at the color of his hands. For as long as he could remember the dry skin on his hands stayed purple all year. He was sure they used to just be purple during the harvest, but now he wouldn’t recognize them if they were any other color.
He thought about Maria Jose again. If he didn’t have any more problems with picking this year, he decided he would buy her a bottle of that wine. That wine that came from the vineyards he’d spent his life working on. That purple black wine.
Essay published in Circle of Wine Writers’ December 2012 Update