March 2008 Issue of Wines & Vines

Moving Toward Mechanical

High-end winemakers warm slowly to machine harvesting

by Alan Goldfarb
High-end winemakers warm slowly to machine harvesting
In Sonoma County, Foppiano Vineyards has been machine-harvesting most of its 200 acres since 2000.

  • More winemakers and growers across the country are taking another look at machine harvesting.
  • It costs $70 to $275 per acre to machine harvest grapes. Picking by hand takes much longer, and can run to $750 per acre.
  • Half of all of the winegrapes in California are harvested by machine, but in Napa Valley, the figure is less than 10%.
  • The dwindling labor supply has pushed the demand for machinery.
Two barrel-samples of Cabernet Sauvignon sit side by side. One was harvested by hand, and the other was picked by machine from the same block on the Davies Ranch in Sonoma Valley during the harvest of 2007. The wines are the result of a trial for Napa Valley's Chateau Montelena.

As he places one of the glasses down, Montelena's assistant winemaker Cameron Parry extols the virtues of machine harvesting. "Harvesters have gotten so much better. They're high-tech and can be programmed for individual vineyard blocks," he says with some enthusiasm. "It's quite remarkable how well they can be adjusted and how cleanly they can pick."

High-end winemakers warm slowly to machine harvesting
Chateau Montelena's assistant winemaker Cameron Parry compares barrel samples made from handpicked and mechanically harvested grapes. Though the winery has been experimenting with machines, it's not yet ready to make the switch.
Another such experiment was also conducted on two Primitivo blocks in the south end of Montelena's own vineyard north of Calistoga. Thus, you'd deduce that Montelena--one of the most respected producers in the U.S.--is preparing to utilize mechanized harvesters.

Not so, Parry declares. "Right now, we don't feel there's any advantage. We have to send in a hand crew ahead of the machine, in any case. (And) we don't see a quality advantage or particular difference either," he says, pointing toward the barrel samples.

Parry's remarks echo the sentiments of many high-end producers in Napa Valley and elsewhere. Nonetheless, despite perception issues of machine harvesting detracting from their so-called artisanal endeavors, and spurred by the very real possibility of coming immigration crackdowns that could result in labor shortages, more producers and growers across the country are taking another look at what they can expect from machine harvesting.

Dwindling labor

The dwindling labor supply has pushed the demand for machinery, especially for ever increasing corporate vineyard and winery entities. It's estimated that 30-40% of Sonoma County's grape crop is already picked by mechanical harvesters.

Although half of all of the winegrapes in California are harvested by machine--mostly in the Central Valley--in Napa, the figure remains at less than 10%.

Despite the fact that the cost of harvesting by machine is far lower than picking by hand, producers in the Napa Valley, where the average price for a bottle of red wine is about $50, and despite labor issues, some insist that they'll eschew picking their precious crop any way but by hand.

Estimates are that it costs $70 to $275 per acre to machine harvest grapes (not accounting for the cost of a machine, which can range from $150,000 to $300,000). Picking by hand, which takes much longer, can run to $750 per acre at super-premium properties. Nevertheless, some vintners are taking a cavalier approach.

"It's all about quality, so whatever it takes, I'll pick by hand," one Napa Valley producer, whose wines sell from $75 to upwards of $100 and consistently garner very high ratings, told Wines & Vines on the condition of anonymity. "I'll pay workers whatever it takes to pick my grapes."

Volker Eisele, of Volker Eisele Estate in Chiles Valley, has been quoted as saying, "As far as labor, there seems to be enough (workers). However, the (hourly) prices are going up.…Overall, there is (a shortage) but it's not as severe as you might think, because in the Napa Valley, we pay better. We (pay) the highest agricultural prices in the nation."

Indeed, according to the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Association, entry-level seasonal workers are paid $10 per hour. On average, fulltime workers make $13-$16. But during harvest, permanent workers are paid up to $30 per hour.

Which led Chateau Montelena's Parry to say, "Were there to be a labor shortage, we are evaluating the feasibility (of using) mechanical harvesting. (But) we do not anticipate a labor shortage."

Good-looking grapes

Chris Howell, of Cain Vineyards, was impressed at a machine harvesting trial conducted at the Stagecoach Vineyard on Atlas Peak four years ago. The experiment was held on what Howell describes as a "gentle hillside," which straddled terraces of Stagecoach's vineyard,

"Looking at the fruit and how it was being put in bins, it looked very good," Howell says. "(When mechanical harvesters were being developed years ago), the machines tended to beat up the fruit and deliver a lot of debris. What we saw with Cabernet Sauvignon was good, round berries, not crushed, not a lot of juice, and very little of anything other than grapes. I was positively impressed."

At Cain, however, Howell believes, "There's still no machine that will do it. Our ground (on Spring Mountain) is far too dangerous (because of the steep terraces). Everything is going to be hand-harvested all the way."

Howell also thinks that mechanical harvesting won't become prevalent in the Napa Valley, "Not in the next five years; and it'll be restricted primarily to the valley floor."

But some mechanical harvesters now claim to handle slopes to 35º. Gary Patterson of Nestor Enterprises in Lodi, Calif., farms most of his 2,100 acres by machine. However, he asserts that more than 10% of his vineyard is on hillside "too dangerous" for a mechanical harvester.

"The 6-ton gondolas alongside the machines become too heavy and push the tractor off the hill, and the machine can no longer level itself," he acknowledges. "When you start getting about 15-18%, it starts becoming an issue. At 25%, that's where you've got to draw the line."

Rick Austin of Euro-Machines in Culpeper, Va., claims his harvesters can handle slopes of from 32 to 35º. "That's what they were designed for," he says.

However, he says, his harvesters are "made for high-production, high-quality situations. There are some people who will never accept mechanical harvesting for however long they live."

High-end winemakers warm slowly to machine harvesting
Skeptical reactions

One of those appears to be Mike Richmond, the winemaker and GM at the Napa-Carneros Bouchaine Vineyards. Richmond admits to not having worked with mechanical harvesters, and his bias, he acknowledges, is based upon anecdotal discussions and observations from some of his colleagues.

His view may be typical of winemakers who are still skeptical of mechanization. "There are some advantages for harvesting at night, and (machines) eliminate the need for crusher/stemmers," he says. But he believes that the grapes "come in like a bucket of marbles," and that there's no opportunity to do selective harvesting, or instruct the machine to leave the second crop, or skip bunches with rot and mold.

So, Richmond concludes, "If you're making fine, hand-tuned wines, it's one level of control that you don't have. As a small winemaker, when I fancy myself as an artisan winemaker, I want control of the fruit that I turn into wine."

But if Richmond listens a few minutes to Tom Thompson, many of his concerns about mechanical harvesting may be answered.

"If the machine is properly adjusted and operated, you will get all the grapes off and you will not damage the grapes," says Thompson, whose company, American Grape Harvesters in Fresno, Calif., sells four to six such machines every year. He says his equipment addresses the cleanliness issue with blower and conveyor systems that deliver low levels of MOG (material other than grapes).

Dave Groth, of Aldercreek Vineyards and Canyon's Edge Winery in Mabton, Wash., has been farming about two-thirds of his 270 acres mechanically for the last four years. He claims that most in the coming years will have to take a harder look at machine harvesting.

"When all of us go down this road of immigration, you're going to see more people moving toward mechanical harvesting," says Groth, who sells his fruit to more than 30 clients. "The labor shortage is going to get more difficult. Large and small (producers and growers) are going to have to evaluate (it) going forward."

Lodi's Gary Patterson, whose company owns five mechanical harvesters and sells fruit to about 18 clients from Lodi to Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles, is adamant in his belief that those behemoth, praying mantis-like machines will become part of the winemaking process.

"Machines have come a long way….There's still prejudice, but mechanical everything is going to be part of our future, irrespective of immigration, just to be competitive worldwide," he predicts.

As counterpoint, however, Robert Mondavi Winery director of winemaking Genevieve Janssens might be speaking for many colleagues when she asserts that machine harvesters will "Never, ever touch high-end, Napa Valley reserve wines. Machines are not ballet dancers."

Foppiano Vineyards is a believer

High-end winemakers warm slowly to machine harvesting
One Sonoma County mid-size winery, Foppiano Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, has been machine-harvesting 75% of its 200 acres since 2000. Vineyard manager Paul Foppiano, who leases a mechanical harvester, insists, "It's a great thing. I should have bought a machine years ago."

He believes labor issues have already had a major effect, estimating that there are 30 harvesters in Sonoma County. "I'm in favor of it. (Small wineries) really balk at it. Our winemaker balked at it at one time, but now he'd rather have it machine harvested. Every winemaker needs to give it a chance. They're not like the harvesters we had 20 years ago. They're much gentler."

The machines, which are now fully computerized, may thrash at the vines to extricate the fruit, but apparently, they don't beat up the grapes, which tend to stay whole. Additionally, the machines, which generally operate at night when it's cooler and drier, are capable of separating leaves and stems (leaving very little MOG), thus eliminating destemmers.

Alan Goldfarb is a correspondent for, and was previously wine editor for the Napa Valley's St. Helena Star and a contributing writer for Decanter magazine. To comment on this article, e-mail
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