Vines heavy with lush grapes stretch out as far as the eye can see. A golden sun slinks behind layers of foothills only to be replaced by a harvest moon and a sky lousy with stars. There are cute wooden wine barrels and colorful bottles that catch the light stacked all around. You fill your wine glass whenever you need a quick refreshment. You wear a big, floppy hat, maybe with a ribbon, and walk through rows upon rows of vines watching the bounty grow before your eyes.
Isn’t this the image of what comes to mind when you think about what it’d be like to work in a vineyard?
Okay, well, parts of that are kind of true. Let me say the our romantic daydreams may be a little misleading. That doesn’t mean it’s a great experience. But the grapes aren’t going to just grow well on their own without some hard work, and your cute, floppy hat might look something like this:
Lane and I chose to do a workaway experience on a vineyard shortly after arriving in Chile. We wanted a way to slow down, reflect on our travels, decrease our spending, and decide what was next for us. We also weren’t super enticed by the idea of spending Christmas and New Year’s bouncing around hostels. Thus, the holidays seemed like the perfect time to figure out how to stay in one place and cheaply. Workaway is a volunteer program where you volunteer to work 5 hours a day, 5 days a week in exchange for free room and board. Workaway experiences can range from working on a small vineyard in Chile, like we did, to helping crew a sailboat in Indonesia. In Chile, and probably most of Latin America, workawayers are lovingly called “GGs”, or gringos gratis: free gringos. The vineyard where we worked employed a few people full-time but the relatively young vineyard isn’t big enough to support much more. So, a few volunteers help to close the gap in work around the property in exchange for a cozy place to live.
For about a month, we lived in a little house right next to the biggest vine fields. We took care of six crazy dogs, collected eggs from the henhouse, pulled countless weeds from the rows of vines, helped the vines grow in the right direction, helped to clean and fill a few thousand bottles of wine, and if we still had time, weeded some more. We also spent so much time basking in the sweet summer days of Central Chile, giving us some pretty crazy tan lines. Our muscles grew stronger. We stopped embarrassing ourselves with subpar shoveling techniques. We practiced Spanish. We spent time with several kind and interesting people. We drank wine—lots of wine—with winemakers and wine critics. We learned to appreciate all the planning, effort, and love that goes into making a good wine.
The owners of the vineyard, Matt and Ana, welcomed us into their home for a Christmas Eve with their families. Thus, we celebrated our first summery Christmas in Spanish. I asked Ana, who is Chilean, what she thought about Christmas in summer since she’s never had anything else. She assured me it still felt weird, and she wanted to experience a Christmas in winter because that just seems right.
On Christmas Day, we passed the hours next to our festive ‘Christmas cactus’ calling family back home with precious cell phone data due to lack of internet. We indulged in a bottle of especially nice wine and ate leftover homemade zucchini bread.
For New Year’s Eve, we feasted with another Chilean family. José, a super patient and kind builder extraordinaire of the vineyard, invited us to his home to celebrate. Among many other wonderful details I will remember from that night, my excitement when the family added ice cream to our champagne after midnight.
For all the other days in between, there are so many moments I don’t want to forget.
Cleaning hundreds of spider webs and sacs from the windows and decompressing with a glass of wine afterwards because it was pretty gross and scary. Some were definitely poisonous.
Driving the old Subaru Forester into town for groceries.
Picking the biggest zucchini I’ve ever seen from the garden for baking some holiday bread.
Passing the evening on the front porch with Miguel, our housemate, and learning about his life in Venezuela and how he met his photographer wife on flickr back in the day.
How the chickens often followed closely beside us when we were weeding so they could eat the grubs we dug up.
Running for the first time in a long time and feeling strong.
Reading an old copy of The House of The Spirits by Isabel Allende and feeling grateful I was reading this beautiful history of Chile...in Chile.
Spending evenings with wine-makers and wine-critics and trying to follow conversations so far outside the realm of our knowledge.
The one time Lane cooked fresh fish and it attracted so many flies in the house and the dogs were too excited by the smells.
Making my first silver ring with Ana and gaining so much respect for all jewelry makers.
The uncertainty of never knowing on a given whether we would have either too many eggs or if the hens would just take the day off.
Passing the way time always does—slowly when you're in it, too fast when you look back—our departure day arrived. We said warm goodbyes to the friends we’d made throughout the past month, both human and animal. Matt and Ana drove us to the bus station in town, and ensured we left the vineyard with a few bottles and welcomed us back anytime. I hope the future brings us back to the Colchagau valley, where we can flag a right down a dirt road, pass the Mil Estrellas hotel, round a few more turns, and arrive at the gate to the vineyard. We can pass through the gate again, see the new height of the young vines we nurtured, greet familiar faces, and give six big hugs to our six favorite dogs.