May 2017 Issue of Wines & Vines

Heading Toward the 'No-Touch' Vineyard

Growers discuss the current trends in mechanization and its future

by Andrew Adams

In a decade or less, a vineyard owner could “farm” by sitting in front of a monitor or, more likely, a smartphone or tablet.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, self-driving tractors with robotic implements and elaborate real-time monitoring systems could eliminate the need for human labor and turn into a reality the concept of the “no-touch” vineyard.

While it’s debatable when such a future will arrive, as agricultural labor continues to grow more scarce and more expensive, it’s undoubtable that more and more vineyard operations will be mechanized and eventually automated. The subject was the focus of lengthy sessions at this year’s Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento, Calif., and the WiVi conference hosted in Paso Robles, Calif., by Wine Business Monthly. (Both Wine Business Monthly and Wines & Vines magazine are part of Wine Communications Group.)

The panel at Unified focused more on high-tonnage vineyards, but at WiVi vineyard managers for Jackson Family Wines and Treasury Wine Estates discussed how they’ve mechanized premium vineyard operations as well.

Speakers on both panels said there’s a need for more mechanization but stressed it isn’t yet a one-size-fits-all solution that can easily be brought to just any vineyard. “I truly do feel that what we talk about here today, we’re moving in the right direction,” Aaron Lange, the vice president of vineyard operations for LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards, which owns more than 7,000 acres of vineyards in the Lodi, Calif., area, said during Unified. “We will absolutely have a no-touch vineyard in five or 10 years. I truly believe it.”

A shrinking, aging labor pool
Lange said 90% of all farm labor in California is from Mexico, but only about 2% of those workers are newcomers, and the workforce is getting older: The average age is now 38. He said immigration has continued to decline in recent years, and in fact there is now a net negative immigration back to Mexico.

“Especially with the recent announcements we have in the news at the federal level, this is a very big issue for us as far as the supply of labor in agricultural fields among other industries, and so I urge you to really get involved politically,” he said. “If you don’t belong to an association that advocates on behalf of your interest, you absolutely need to get involved in one.”

Just as the number of available workers continues to shrink, the cost of labor is poised to increase. California is raising the minimum wage, and agricultural workers will also soon be eligible for more overtime pay.

Labor already accounts for 50% of his farming costs, and Lange expects that to increase. “You can imagine we’re going to have to either reduce those labor inputs or ask our wineries to pay us a hell of a lot more in order for us to survive with sustainable economics in our vineyard practices,” he said.

Lange offered the session audience a detailed look at some of the steps LangeTwins has taken to reduce those labor costs and mechanize more operations. Most of the vineyards have been changed to 65-inch-high bilateral cordon to accommodate machines for harvesting and pruning.

To provide a specific example, Lange said a new vineyard with 65-inch bilateral cordon, with 10-gauge wire, drip wire and a stake at every vine would cost about $11,000 per acre to develop. “Our total cost to develop that vineyard is not cheap, and I don’t think we’d be able to do it again for this cost where labor supply is going and what wages we’re having to pay in the Lodi area,” he said.

Suckering taller vines remains a challenge because such work needs to take place during the spring, when there’s competition from other crops. Lange said “tall vines” could be a solution: They are mostly rootstock that was de-budded in the nursery. “That makes a lot of sense to us that we’re not having suckers pushing all over the place.”

He said he still needs to see how these vines perform over the long term, but he’s encouraged by what he’s seen so far.

While there have been major advancements in mechanical harvesting and on-board sorting, Lange noted such harvesters do work rather well in a vertically shoot positioned vineyard, with meticulously leaf-pulled vines and picking at a rate of 5 tons per hour.

“In Lodi we need these machines to handle 6 tons to the acre to 12 tons to the acre, and we need to keep our speed up,” he said. “I have not seen one of these units really do an effective job at removing all that MOG while keeping the ground speed up and handling that type of volume.”

He said his team is currently working on modifying some existing machines to get quality at higher speeds with the added goal of reducing harvester teams from five workers to three.

Getting ahead of labor
Monterey Pacific manages more than 12,000 acres of vines in Monterey County, which is located in California’s Central Coast. Dr. Doug Beck, agronomist with the firm, said even in 2004 the staff saw “the writing on the wall” when it came to labor and converted most of a 3,000-acre vineyard for mechanical operations.

He said the company first followed an example from Australia of 12-inch by 12-inch box pruning, which proved effective but had winery clients worried about quality because of what they saw as excess wood in the box and yields of 12 to 13 tons per acre. In response, Beck said the company reduced the box size to half the original.

“By keeping it at that small size you keep dead wood inside the box to a minimum and maintain yields at levels wineries will accept and grapegrowers will be happy with,” he said. “I don’t think this system will work everywhere, but it does work very well under our conditions: the wine price point, the adverse fruit-set conditions that keep crops from getting too much out of hand and weather and soil constraints that keep vine vigor moderated. It’s a very simplistic no-hands approach, but it has proved to be a very good one.”

Taking advantage of ‘field destemming’
During the WiVi conference that was held in Paso Robles in March, Simon Graves, director of vineyard operations for Treasury Wine Estates said the company has invested in 24 mechanical harvesters by Pellenc. He said the company now refers to harvest as “field destemming,” and most of Treasury’s wineries do little to no destemming on the crush pad anymore.

He’s comfortable with a harvest rate of 7 tons per acre and is adding a side discharge unit for vineyards with long rows. Hand harvesting can cost between $280 and $350 per ton, while the machine averages $64 per ton, making the return on investment pretty quick, he said. The multi-function machines offer other efficiencies such as three-row spraying, mowing and canopy management.

At a vineyard in the Howell Mountain AVA of Napa Valley, Graves said the Pellenc machines can dump directly into bins that are already loaded on a flatbed truck. “We take the forklift out of the equation,” he said. “It saves us about $75 per box.”

Graves was joined on the panel by Bart Haycraft, vineyard manager for Jackson Family Wines in Santa Barbara County.

Haycraft said the company developed much of its Central Coast vineyard acreage in the early 1990s with 6-foot spacing and no cross arms to be harvested and tended by machines. These originally were large and complex multi-row machines but have since moved to using Pellenc and Braud machines for harvesting, leaf-pulling, spraying, mowing and some pruning.

For optimal use with its machines, Pellenc recommends 5-foot by 7-foot row spacing with rows oriented northeast by southwest for vertical position trained vines. According to the supplier, such a setup provides cluster shading from the canopy in the neighboring row. Drip lines should be at 12 inches to 18 inches with the cordon wire a minimum of 2 feet and end posts no higher than 6.5 feet. Cross arms can be replaced with “J” clips, which can interfere with the mechanization of other tasks but should not affect harvesting if mounted 4 inches to 6 inches above the fruiting zone.

During the WiVi session, Haycraft said using machines such as the Pellenc is no problem with cane and spur pruning. Setting up a vineyard for more mechanized work helps the machines pay for themselves, especially when one considers hedging and mowing can occur at the same time. “If you have a line item budget, one of those passes is free,” he said.

Haycraft said Jackson Family Wines has found savings and efficiencies not just in tending vines or picking grapes. He said three large field presses eliminated the need to haul tons of grapes, and he’s currently looking into an automated mixing and loading station for vineyard sprays. Automation also doesn’t just replace the need for unskilled labor but helps your existing employees learn new skills in maintaining and operating the machines. “We’re not looking to automate just to save money,” he said. “We’re also doing it so down the road the people we have will be far more skilled.”

It may take several years before machines are doing all vineyard work, and by then they may not even need human operators. That future may also include fully automated wineries, in which field destemmed grapes are dumped onto conveyors that distribute the berries into tanks equipped with automated pump-over devices. Once ready, the finished wine could be pumped to barrels laid down by robotic forklifts and later pumped back to tanks that feed automated bottling lines that would load cases into self-driving delivery trucks.

Perhaps it seems implausible, but 10 years ago, many winemakers were convinced that quality wine could never be made with machine-harvested grapes. One of those skeptics was Jonathan Nagy, winemaker at Byron Vineyard & Winery in Los Olivos, Calif. Nagy moderated the mechanization panel at WiVi and described the bins of machine-harvested grapes he saw early in his career as being full of juice and macerated grapes, leaves and other MOG. Several years later, he couldn’t believe the improvement in quality. “It was beautiful,” he said. “Whole berries and nothing else in there, and we went straight to tank. No need for destemming.”

Several years from now, it may seem ridiculous that growers ever relied on something as slow and laborious as picking grapes by hand.

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