The grape escape

WWOOFing at vineyards for the harvest

Rosie Scammell
September 27, 2012

If you love food and wine and don't mind getting your hands dirty to help save the planet, then volunteering at an organic farm or vineyard through the international nonprofit World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) may just be the ticket. WWOOF helps volunteers find organic farms around the world, where they work as farm hands. It is a great way to travel and explore another culture, while getting hands-on experience of the farming and rural lifestyle in exchange for room and board. Rosie Scammell tells of her unqiue experience harvesting grapes at a vineyard in Piedmont. And with the Italian chapter of WWOOF based in Castagneto Carducci, residents and visitors to Tuscany have ample options to choose from.

 

Sunrise among the grape vines, a lengthy lunch and an afternoon swim form the daily rhythm of life at Cascina Zerbetta. In exchange for around five hours' work each day, volunteers receive accommodation, food and the opportunity to see Italy beyond the tourist trail.

 

Zerbetta is one of the many farms seeking people to pluck the harvest this month. While it is testament to the richness of Italy's northern wine region of Piedmont, WWOOF also lists 30 vineyards in Tuscany.

 

All it takes to get started is membership in WWOOF, which was started in Italy over a decade ago. Twenty-five euro buys a year's membership and access to the coveted list of vineyards and farms available around the country. While some members will trawl through the 500-plus options months in advance, members also receive regular e-mails with information about those farms seeking ‘WWOOFers' immediately.

 

As the name suggests, WWOOF is an organisation of the willing rather than the experienced. Even a well-tailored Florentine with a touch of enthusiasm can help produce some of Tuscany's most sought-after bottles. Time committed to the vines ranges from a few days to weeks, although the occasional WWOOFer will extend his or her stay to months.

 

Hosts are as diverse as their volunteers, ranging from individuals to families or groups of likeminded people that have organic ambitions. Languages spoken on the farm are listed, and while English is widely spoken, there is ample opportunity to speak Italian, in addition to innumerable others, including Finnish, Russian and Turkish.

 

The post-summer period is the perfect time to escape the wearied walls of Florence, returning to the city a more sophisticated sommelier. Filling baskets of grapes in the autumn air provides a welcome escape for the urbanite, but countryside delight comes in every stage, from testing the grape's ripeness to pouring the evening's glass.

 

While Chianti Classico demands unwavering commitment to Sangiovese grapes, with just a sprinkling of other varieties allowed into the mix, volunteering affords a path to other blends. Spending the equivalent of Matteo Renzi's budget in the local enoteca may grant the appearance of wine wisdom, but it cannot compare to strolling the vines with those who have laboured for years to produce their favoured variety. Tasting grapes straight from the source is novel, but having someone on hand to explain the flavours in real rather than lofty terms is unique.

 

Volunteering duties vary among vineyards, but gathering grapes is a simple, earthy task. Under the August sun in Piedmont, the white grapes are picked before the heat blazes, meaning an early moka on the flame and a memorable morning light. The process is far from arduous, while the closeness of the vines allows for tales to be shared within the eclectic crowd of harvesters.

The city slicker will rarely think further than the grape, barrel and bottle when it comes to wine production, but through WWOOFing one can be exposed to every stage. This is more likely to involve tasting grape juice for its sugar content than stamping soles on the harvest in the name of tradition. Those with an interest in organic viniculture can learn about the possibilities for producing high-quality wine with more passion than pesticide.

 

This approach extends to mealtime, as many wine producers also grow vegetables and other crops. As one might imagine, the farms serve delectable dinners, where the Italian adoration of food is played out over long evenings, with wine fetched from the cellar below. The nuances of a nation are deciphered, bringing the exchange far beyond one of work and wine. After a day under the sun, and with corks cluttering the table, slumber comes easily.

 

Interesting in becoming a WWOOFer?

Visit www.wwoof.it/en/ for more information.

 

There are 30 vineyards in Tuscany that are part of the WWOOF network and hundreds of other farms seeking volunteers across Italy.

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