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Mechanical Harvesting ~ With a Diminishing Labor Supply, Viticulturists are finding this a positive solution

Being in the vineyards with Jim Murphy (Murphy Vineyards LLC) recently, I was reminded how vineyardists are finding it increasingly more difficult to find good labor during harvest, and are turning to mechanical harvesting. I was first turned onto the positive use of a mechanical harvester by Paul Foppiano. I was working on newsletter content for the family in 2004, and he wanted his input to be about his new harvest machinery.

I was really doubtful at the time. I remember thinking, “This isn’t really romantic, in any way whatsoever, and I’m not sure fans of Foppiano are going to be interested that some farm workers have been replaced by a machine.”

I believe that many people had the exact same feelings, when John Deere introduced his first tractor.

There’s something really special about handcrafting… This is similar to a well knit sweater versus one that’s been purchased. It takes me about 40 hours to knit an Icelandic knit. Do the financial math (at only $50 an hour for the high-level skill) for the handcrafted one, versus one that I’d purchase for $40 at Old Navy. There’s just no comparison.

That said, why would we as consumers insist on our value wines, but balk at machine harvesting?

DISCLAIMER FOR 2008 HARVEST AT FOPPIANO:

With new winemaker Natalie West at Foppiano, the focus for wines crafted by Foppiano has been shifted to handcrafted, so what you’ll read is Paul’s 2004 historical perspective, NOT what was represented with the 2008 harvest. True handcrafted wines and machine harvesting don’t go hand-in-hand, per se.

Some viticulturists might want to argue this; and I say, bring it on, because I’m now a big supporter of the process for wines that are in the “value” category.

In Paul’s past experience (pre the 2008 harvest), the first time he used a harvester was in a Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in Alexander Valley during a year that they were short on labor and the grapes were over-ripe. Paul brought in a management company with a harvester and they began shaking the grapes into five ton gondolas. In subsequent years, they began picking other varieties in the same way and did trials of hand-picked grapes versus machine-picked grapes, only to find that the machine-picked grapes were less tannic and less harsh.

When Paul introduced the concept at Foppiano, he was met with some resistance; he and his winemaker eased into it, beginning with Cabernet Sauvignon, then Merlot, and ultimately an aggressive total ranch harvest. Paul said that he was concerned when they first used harvesters in their Petite Sirah vineyards that there would be damage to the vines because of the tight bunches and lack of canopy. He found that damage was minimal, and was very happy with the results of the harvester. One of the biggest advantages, in Paul’s opinion, is that the harvester completely eliminates sunburn because the fan removes any raisins that have been picked. Another advantage is that part of the bunch can be picked while part of the bunch is left on the vine. In the winemaking process, the Foppianos found their fruit to be less tannic, younger wines with fewer stem caps, and the wines are cleaner in the tank during fermentation. They’ve also found more uniformity of ripeness.

The above image is a cluster pre-picking.

This next above image is how the rachis is left on the vine, and only the fruit was harvested, thus eliminating much of the destemming process. Some stems do come in with the fruit, however, as evidenced with the image below of harvested fruit.

Paul stated that they were seeing very little negative impact to the vines. There was some stripping, but it didn’t affect the vines much long-term. The harvester also positively affected their labor cost and helped to resolve labor problems; they were able to keep the same small crew year-round, which resulted in a happier labor force. Paul’s experiences with the mechanical harvester for those past vintages were only positive.

For future wines, the Foppianos are now involved, as I said, with getting back to hand-crafting and harvesting in half ton bins that are brought to a micro destemmer. Those wines, beginning with the 2008 harvest, should represent new delicate flavors, even for their big, bold Petites. The Pinots should prove to be delicate and luscious, since Natalie’s past winemaking experience is with Ferrari-Carrano.

Meanwhile, here’s this perspective on machine harvesters… with value wines.

5 Responses to “Mechanical Harvesting ~ With a Diminishing Labor Supply, Viticulturists are finding this a positive solution”

  1. Brad Alderson says:

    After many many years making excellent wine from machine harvested grapes I continue to marvel at the bias against them. This bias is based on a public relations perception that the hand picking is more selective. If this is so, then I must ask why do they have to have sorting table in the winery also. The reality is that neither hand picking or machine picking is perfectly selective. To be selective with a machine you do pre-harvest dropping of green crop or other defects with a small crew ahead of the machines. The machine can pick on a more timely basis and is more cost effective.

  2. Jo says:

    Also, if anyone were to be in the vineyards when grapes are being picked at a million miles an hour – like we’ve both seen – anyone would know that “selective” is romance, not performance, by any stretch of the imagination.

    Thanks for your comment, Brad. More people who know the advantages need to speak out, to burst that PR bubble. The winemakers and vineyard people I talk to marvel at the modernization.

    It’s as simple as squeezing an orange can be. I can do it by hand forever and get a bit of juice, or I can use a simple juicer… It tastes the same, just takes a bit less time to juice the orange.

  3. Mike says:

    So what are your thoughts on MOG?

  4. Jo says:

    If you’re referring to Material Other Than Grapes (MOG), I’m with Tony soprano… “Whadaya gonna do?” I’ve watched yellow jackets become part of the process, because they don’t know enough to stay away… Rattlesnakes anyone? (Must lend a bit of leathery components to the flavor of the wine?)

    Ideally, pick by hand and charge for the labor. (Now we’re up into the $50 bottles of wine. There’s a market, but the bottles take a lot longer to move off the shelves, as you know.

    Not so ideally is the demand for Californian wines to be more affordable. We don’t have the luxury of a country subsidizing our brands to make them affordably competitive.

    US Brands are between a rock and a hard place.

    What it takes to get a bottle to market:
    Equipment for processing (crusher/destemmer/balloon bladder. etc.)
    Equipment for harvesting (tractors, bins for holding grapes, irrigation, etc.)
    Labor for all of the above and below
    Hard costs (bottle, label, cork or corkscrew closures, barrels for aging, stainless steel fermenting tanks)
    Marketing and PR
    Employees within the winery beyond PR (Executives and admin)

    I won’t continue, but you can see where this is going. Running a winery, then selling a $10 bottle of wine needs efficiency and a bit of MOG.

    Wines that are hand crafted (Taking out the MOG – for the most part) need proficiency, and those costs get passed along to the consumer, because wineries need to meet payroll.

  5. Brad Alderson says:

    MOG is an issue that completely addressable by using good equipment, vineyard preparation, and staff. Have received thousands of tons havested by machine without MOG. On the other hand I have watched workers in the bins picking out the MOG from a hand crew.

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