Workaway Adventure – Living in a Vineyard in Portugal

“Look at what I have calculated!” Hugh said excitedly as he showed us some numbers on a small piece of paper. “This is the largest harvest we’ve ever had. We harvested 482 large bins of grapes, which is 12,050 Kg or 12 tons or equivalent to 9000 bottles of wine!”

“I can’t even comprehend what that number means,” exclaimed Annie.

“Can I call it the Su Family Vintage 2020?” I proposed to Hugh and Jane, the vineyard owner. “We want to reserve some bottles when it is ready to drink in 4 or 5 years?”

“I want to serve the Su Family Vintage Wine at my wedding!” Laughed Nathan.

Perfect Workaway

No words can describe our wonderful experience we had the past 17 days of Workaway (working for free food and room) with Hugh and Jane at the Quinta Dos Tres Rios www.minola.co.uk (Farm of the Three Rivers) in the Dao Valley of Portugal. We were here for the entire grape harvest in September 2020. In the pomegranate farm in 2015, we did the pruning of trees. This time we got to enjoy the fruit of the harvest. We also got to witness the entire process of de-leafing, harvesting, de-stalking, treading, filtering, and fermenting the grapes into white, red, and rose wines as well as red/white port wines, and brandy using the traditional local methods. Hugh even taught us how to drive the tractor!

A video of our experience in the vineyard

It was hard work as on some days we started with breakfast at 7 am and didn’t stop until dinner at 7 pm, but we never felt forced to do more than we can. In fact, both Hugh and Jane worked much harder than us but they were both so cheerful and patient even at the end of the day despite this being the most stressful time of the year. In addition, Hugh and Jane taught us so much about wine and life; and also helped us so much more than we had helped them (even drove Jonathan to the dentist to repair his chipped tooth or took us into Viseu town or bus stations). Both Hugh and Jane are very kind, giving, and fun to chat with. We felt like they are our British parents in Portugal! Jane even won the Best of British Women award 27 years ago.

Treading the grapes to let the juice have more contact with the skin.
Joani is earning to drive a tractor even before she learn how to drive a car.
Jane was voted on of the Best of British Women.

The accommodation was very comfortable even for the five of us as there were many beds and rooms in the 100-year-old stone house with 7 hectares of land and a river running right through it. The mansion was the biggest house that we had ever stayed in with 3 floors, 16 rooms (9 bedrooms and 7 living/sitting rooms), 9 bathrooms, 4 dining rooms, and 3 kitchens. The vegetable gardens were covered with corn, beans, zucchini, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, beets, broccoli, asparagus, strawberry, raspberry, carrots, tomatoes, eggplants, bell peppers, chili, onion, garlic, and herbs, which we helped to pick for our meals. There were all sorts of fruit trees, such as fig, pear, kiwi, plum, peach, orange, and lemon. They raised a rooster and 6 hens which provided us with many eggs and entertainment when they escaped. On the river, they raised 4 geese and 4 ducks. The best of all, they have 3 dogs and 2 cats which filled our void since we miss our dog Paz and cat Michi very much.

We had a high suite with bedrooms, bathroom, and kitchen plus fast internet!
Having three dogs and two cats to play with really made Joani very happy.
Lots of vegetables from the garden to eat plus very sweet figs.

The sunrise and sunset on the vineyard were beautiful and Hugh is an excellent stargazing guide at night. During our time off, we got to visit the historical city of Viseu which was worth the trip, and also did some hiking along the river below the vineyard. We also walked around the traditional village where this vineyard is located and attended mass on Sunday. Overall, this is probably one of the best workaway experience our family has ever had.

Sunrise at the vineyard as we begin our day of picking.
Sunrise on the grapes

However, the biggest blessing of this opportunity and one main reason why Annie and I felt God prepared this place for us was how it helped to rebuild our family. Our family needed stability while on the road. Being able to stay put for 17 days was very needed for all of us, especially for Nathan. As we shared with them the struggles we have been going through as a family and Nathan’s mental health challenges, Hugh and Jane were very understanding as their son also have similar challenges. As the host of our stay there, Hugh was in a unique position to take control of our conflicts when it started to go out of hand and was wise in encouraging us and speaking hope into us.

Hugh and Jane are two wise parents and grandparents.

Working on the vine for hours each day, we had plenty of time to work as teams and talk with each other almost as if we were doing one-on-one dates. We would ask each other how we are doing? Or play question games that we each had to take turn answering. Annie and I enjoyed listening to podcasts together as well. Working on the vine was a precious blessing to heal and strengthen our family relationship.

Working on the vine was a good chance to have one on one conversations.

Surprises

We didn’t know what to expect coming to work here at the vineyard.

We had different home cooked main entree every night.

One big surprise for us good lovers are the traditional British home cook meals by Jane, which were our highlight every night, with different delicious main entrees each night! We felt like we joined a British food tour! There were entrees like roast chicken, moussaka, roast pork belly, pasta salad, cream vegetables, roasted peppers and tomatoes, meatloaf, duck confit, couscous, roasted pork loin, chicken coronation, and others. There were delicious puddings (desserts) such as poached figs, English Trifle, pavlova, coffee mousse with ladyfingers, brownies, lemon cheesecake, plum tart, and coffee ice cream. Some were made by Jane’s daughter who was a pastry chef who worked before in a Michelin star restaurant! They also taught us how to make chutney, mayonnaise, pan-fried banana with butter, and baked salmon. Hugh even treated us to a delicious bucket of spicy garden snails that locals serve in the cafe!

Hugh and Jane used to own a smoked salmon business so is an expert at preparing salmon.

Another surprise was all you can drink wine for every dinner. On different nights we would try different homemade wines from different years, such as red, white, rose, and red/white port made from blends of Jaen, Alfrocheiro Preto, Touriga National, and Tinta Roriz. Hugh showed us the proper way of holding a wine glass, swirling and breathing the wine in the mouth then breathing the vapor to distinguish whether it tasted like orange, apple or honey, or other exotic flavors. Since Joani is allergic to alcohol, Hugh was very kind to squeeze grape juices from each of the four grape varieties for her to do her own “juice” tasting or blend them together for a “vintage grape juice”!

Tasting the wine right after making them.

Because our host also has run Bed & Breakfast in the mansion, we got to meet guests from France, Spain, and ex-pats living in Portugal and from all walks of life. At one point, we had 6 families with a total of 13 kids for a weekend. They taught us proper British etiquette for serving guests (with a little rotation of the dish when placing a plate on the table) and how to place the forks, spoons, and knives properly. We observed how Hugh and Jane use the utensils for different types of dishes and learned how to properly wash and clean real “silver”wares which we use every meal. Hugh always said that food tastes much better when using real silverware.

Not only did we harvest grapes in our own vineyard, but we also helped other vineyards to harvest grape (Vendimia) and vice versa. We got to know well other workawayers such as Veronica and Davide who are a Spanish couple planning to study in wine school for 2 years. We had great Vendimia meals at the vineyards of the other two owners John/Nicole and Cathy. We enjoyed the community among the vineyards and within the Qunita Dos Tres Rios with Hugh and Jane’s daughter Caroline and their grandchildren.

Working at another vineyard with other workers and friends to harvest the grapes for the year

Hugh really appreciates his surroundings and the traditional country living, always pointing out interesting trees, plants, houses, small workshops, and even roundabouts to us. Hugh always waves at every car and every person (and even a dog) that he passes from inside his car as if they were his old friends. When I asked him why he answered: “What does it cost me to wave at them to lift their spirits?”

Lessons from the Vines

Annie shared a lesson she learned: “Too much fruit is not good for the grapes. Grapes are healthy when they drape down the branch with good air circulation while ones that hug tightly to other grape or around the branches are moldy. This made me think about the similarity of the grape clusters to a healthy community of believers versus in-grown toenail community of believers.”

Hugh also taught us a lot about the vine as he harvests with us. He shared that under harsh sunlight, the grapes are sweeter because the sugar is more concentrated. The roots of the vines are 15 meters deep because they are never watered after 2 years so that the roots are “disciplined” to go deeper and deeper. This way, during drought, the vines still survives. Indeed, trials and testings are what make us “sweeter” and “drought-resistance” Christians.

When we asked Hugh why the harvest was so good this year, he told us that he put in a lot of attention to the vines since the beginning of the year. So the bearing of the fruit was the cumulation and signs of much labor of love. The Bible tells us that we can tell if the vine is good by its fruit. That is so true.

For one Restday Family Worship, Olivia led us in reflecting on John 15: 1-17, the famous passage on the Vine and the Branches. She asked us to paraphrase the passage in our own words taking into account our personal reflections from working with the Vine. Below is my paraphrase:

Jesus is the main vine and God the Father is the gardener who actively cares for me throughout the whole year, from tilling the soil, fertilizing, pruning, spraying protection to kill molds, and exposing the grapes for air circulation, and watching for the best weather for harvesting.

God the Father looks at me and cut off things that do not belong and that are from Satan; and clean things that belong so that it can be even better. I need to be connected with Jesus otherwise I will be dead and lifeless, all shriveled up like raisins and shrunken leaves and un-matured or moldy grapes.

To be connected to you I need to obey your solemn advice, which is to love one another just as the examples that Father and Jesus have shown in their love – even willing to sacrifice myself for another.

Thank you that what I need to continue to follow you, you have promised to give me and I don’t have to do it on my own strength. You also promise to give me true joy, even though the process can be painful. Because the result of the process will result in the joy that will last forever.

Praising God and giving thanks for all he has done during our time here at the vineyard.

Our Last Supper

17 days went by quickly. It was our last supper with Hugh and Jane.

As we were saying goodbye and sharing our reflections on our time at the Quinta and thanking them for kindness, Nathan reacted to his old memories of being bullied as a young boy in the village of China and directed his pain towards me for bringing him there out of my selfishness.

Hugh and Jane encouraged Nathan immediately.

“Nathan, you are an amazing young man. You are a walking encyclopedia and so knowledgeable. You have a bright future and have so much going for you. You should be proud of what you have accomplished. You will get through it,” shared Jane kindly.

“Don’t look back. That’s water under the bridge,” added Hugh. “Don’t worry about things you can’t change. Focus on the things you can.”

How appropriately that It is with these words of encouragement and a picture of hope in God that we ended our time in Quinta Dos Tres Rios and headed towards Spain.

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