Word + Photos by Greg Ball. This post contains affiliate links to trusted partners.
Doing vineyard work in Italy had always been a dream of ours.
As we stepped off the bus on the piazza in Dogliani, a man approached us, asking, “Are you the American WWOOFers?”
We had come to this rather remote outpost of the Piedmont region in northwest Italy to take part in a harvest on a winery.
Our timing was perfect. Our new friend, Eduardo — who was there to pick us up — said they had just started harvesting grapes that day and there was plenty left to pick.
When my wife Betsy and I decided to drop out of academia after 30 years we had a goal of traveling around Europe for nine months of the year.
In order to do that we extended our travel budget by participating in work exchange programs such as WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), Workaway, and Trusted House Sitters. These sites made it possible to enjoy traveling and volunteering in Italy for free or cheap.
Volunteer Vineyard Work In Italy
We also had a goal of picking grapes during harvest at a winery.
We are both very interested in wine and are WSET (Wine and Spirits Educational Trust) Level 3 certified.
Academic life never let us witness a harvest and we were looking forward to finally getting the opportunity. We found the perfect situation through WWOOF on a biodynamic winery in Dogliani, which would certainly offer some truly unique Italy experiences.Have you ever thought about volunteering to do vineyard work in #Italy? Here is what the experience is like! #WWOOF
If you love true travel stories, you’re about to go on a journey.
And if you’re wondering where to stay in Italy, I’d like to put a very special place on your radar.
Le Roche sits atop an idyllic hill about five minutes north of Dogliani.
Marcello and Ursula Reichmuth bought the winery and moved from Switzerland a little over twenty-five years ago.
They are totally committed to making wine in a biodynamic way. This affects everything from the grapes they grow and when they harvest and prune to practices in the cantina — which is what Italians call the winemaking building — and even how and what they eat.
We loved our time there and have spent two harvests with them. Honestly, if you’re visiting Piedmont in Italy you’ll fall in love with this farm stay.
The 2017 and 2018 seasons could not be more different.
In 2017, our first harvest in Piedmont, it was hot and dry. Although quantity levels were a little low, sugar levels were out the roof!
Marcello was very happy with the quality of fruit we brought in and was confident they would lead to an amazing vintage.
The harvest took place in mid-September and there had not been a drop of rain since June. The days started out cool, but the sun heated things up during the days and everything was quite dusty.
It took 10 of us about a week to get the seven hectares of crop in.
In 2018, the harvest was much different.
It had been a very good growing season so yields were high, but a bad hail storm in August had damaged much of the fruit.
Picking was slow as we had to cut out the bad grapes. Their skins had been broken during the hail storm and they were self-fermenting into vinegar.
The harvest was interrupted by rain and the whole thing took almost twice as long as the prior year.Staying on a working vineyard in #Italy through #WWOOF and helping to harvest wine grapes is a magical experience. Here's why.
An Incredible Volunteer Farm Stay In Italy
Volunteering on the winery — one of the best places to WWOOF in Italy, in my opinion — was an amazing experience.
Our fellow WWOOFers were from Italy, Switzerland, Israel, and the US. There were a few twenty-somethings as you would expect but there were also more mature workers, as well. We were not the oldest ones there.
During the harvest, we would have breakfast at 7am to be in the fields by 8am.
At around 10am Ursula would make us stop for a break. Usually, there would be dried fruits and cookies — and always plenty of water.
At noon we would break for lunch on the porch beside the house. Then by 1pm we were back in the fields, picking until about 5pm or 6pm.
We gathered the grapes in plastic crates, and Marcello would come around and load them onto a flatbed trailer behind his tractor.
At the end of the day, we ran them through the destemming machine and the grapes were pumped into large stainless steel tanks to begin the fermentation process.
In the evenings the group gathered for aperitivo, enjoying Marcello’s wine on the porch while snacking on nuts or crackers. Ursula cooked amazing meals every night and at the table and conversations bounced around in German, Italian, and English.
After a few days, the grapes were fermenting with gusto.
One of my favorite things to do at the end of a day was to go into the cantina and listen to the airlocks bubbling on top of the fermentation tanks, the air heavy with the scent of young wine.
Exploring The Local Cuisine In Piedmont
When the harvest was over, Marcello announced, “It is Christmas!”
In celebration of a successful harvest he treated us to dinner at Azienda Agrituristica “De Monarca” and we toasted the harvest.
This is a family-run agriturismo and the meal was outstanding. Dish after dish of regional delicacies came out of the kitchen accompanied, of course, by Marcello’s wine, which the family allows Marcello to bring in with him.
From the multiple antipasti to the finishing dolce the meal was stellar. For me, the stand out was the carpaccio — thinly sliced raw tenderloin delicately flavored with olive oil and lemon juice. It was the best I’ve ever tasted!
The second year, we celebrated the end of the harvest at Cascina Manzo, a place specializing in pizza on the other side of Dogliani.
This is not your typical pizza joint.
There are nearly a hundred different pizzas on the menu including over a dozen featured pies that rotate regularly.
Every crust is hand thrown and topped to order by three busy cooks in an open-air kitchen. They are then cooked in a matter of seconds in a wood-burning oven. This is a must when you visit the area.Staying on a working farm through #WWOOF. Volunteering on a vineyard. Exploring the best local restaurants. Check out this magical #ItalyTravel itinerary!
Volunteering In Italy After The Harvest
Something helpful to know when searching for volunteer vineyard jobs in Italy is that there is still plenty of work to be done after the harvest. It is a farm after all.
During our time there we cleaned winery equipment, cleaned drains in the cantina, stacked wood, picked herbs, weeded gardens, helped cook, burnt brush piles, refinished furniture, labeled and boxed bottles, built compost bins, and more.
I even got to help Marcello with a couple of wine tastings, which can be arranged by request. There was always something to do on a farm.
The people we met on the winery, both regular workers and WWOOFers, were amazing, too.
Werner — a WWOOFer in his late 60’s — worked alongside us both years picking grapes. He spoke little English but was very kind and always made sure our clippers were clean of the sticky grape juice every day at lunch.
Massimo, an Italian in his mid-30s, was taking a year off to do a different WWOOF experience every month. We were happy to see him return the second year for the harvest.
Then there was Eduardo, or Edo. He was the WWOOFer who picked us up that first visit, and he may be the hardest working young man I have ever met.
Next up, Idan was a young woman from Israel with dreams of running her own winery one day.
Nieko and Jonah — both recent Culinary Institute of America grads living in New York City — were trying to learn more about grapes and up their wine games.
Unique Italy Experiences Beyond The Farm
Weekends we had to ourselves and we used them to learn more about this area we love so much.
The village of Barolo is very close and whenever we could we would visit La Vite Turchese, our favorite wine shop in the area. Stefano and Elisabetta, the owners, offer tastings by the glass accompanied by charcuterie and cheeses.
Stefano knows more about the local wines than anyone I’ve ever met and shares his knowledge when serving your wine. Elisabetta sources her meats and cheeses locally which are the perfect accompaniment next to a glass or bottle.
We also visited several local wineries.
One evening Marcello took us to meet a fellow producer just down the road, Fabrizio Porro. Azienda Agricola “Ribote” di Bruno Porro is a family-run winery and Fabrizio is the new generation running the show.
We arrived unannounced but he welcomed us with open arms, gave a nice tour of the facilities, and then sat down with us and proudly started opening his bottles.
We ended up talking and drinking over three hours as family members passed through the tasting room, which is right next to their home.
We met parents, cousins, and children while tasting some of the region’s best wine. Not surprisingly, we’ve been back a few times since and have enjoyed every visit.One of the best parts about volunteering on an #ItalyVineyard = the connections we've made -- and kept. Learn more about our memorable #WWOOF experience in Piedmont!
Another favorite is Rivetto near the gorgeous village of Serralunga d’Alba.
We enjoyed taking Idan, Nieko, and Jonah there to meet Enrico Rivetto, a third-generation winemaker who is making big changes on their land. They recently became the first winery in the Barolo area to be officially designated biodynamic.
Most importantly, they also make very fine wine!
A little farther down the road is the city of Alba, home to The International Alba White Truffle Fair.
Taking place just after the grape harvest, this well-known food festival draws crowds from around the world who come to taste the world’s most expensive fungus. Nearly every local restaurant features the prized white truffle on their menus during this time.
Interestingly, Betsy and I were just back in Barolo staying with our friends Daniela and Franco of La Giolitta Bed and Breakfast. This is where we stayed on our first visit to the area in 2014.
This couple has now become our close friends and we stayed with them to work on our Italian, coach them on their English, and help with some chores around the property.
This is the magic of what happens when you volunteer to do vineyard work in Italy.
Instead of simply sightseeing, you have truly memorable unique Italy experiences that lead to lasting connections.
Have you ever done vineyard work in Italy or volunteered on an organic farm?
What are some unique Italy experiences you’ve had?
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