Winemakers Share Mechanization Experiences

Unified Symposium session looks at reasons to mechanize, tastes the results

by Linda Jones McKee
wine missouri mechanized vineyard farming
Andrew Meggitt (left), winemaker and vineyard manager at St. James Winery, pours wine at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, where he was one of several winemakers sharing wines made from grapes grown in mechanized vineyards.

Sacramento, Calif.—The availability of labor is a problem that’s going to continue, according to Keith Striegler, who moderated a session about winemaker experiences with vineyard mechanization during the recent Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento. Striegler, grower outreach specialist for E. & J. Gallo Winery, noted in his introduction that more vineyard operations and practices are being mechanized, and mechanized pruning, shoot thinning and leaf removal change vineyard appearance.

“When you make a change in the vineyard,” he said, “you have to have a buy-in by the winemakers in the winery, or you won’t get very far.” He then introduced the four panelists, who came from different regions and grow grapes for wines with different price points.

Andrew Meggitt, winemaker, vineyard manager and co-owner of St. James Winery in St. James, Mo., discussed how St. James got into mechanization. When Meggitt first arrived at St. James from New Zealand in 2002, the winery produced 60,000 cases. Today, it is the largest winery in Missouri, farming 185 acres and producing 250,000 cases, with 65% of the grapes grown on St. James’ property. The winery plans to plant an additional 55 acres this year and another 50 acres in the two succeeding years.

St. James Winery began a mechanization experiment in 2004 that lasted until 2009 using side-by-side rows in a block of Chardonel grapes. Meggitt reported that initially they found some variation in the fruit, but in 2010, the vineyard crew began doing a follow-up by hand to the mechanized pruning. “That cleaned up and opened up the canopy,” he said. “The ripening zone is more even.”

In 2012, the winery made the decision to convert their entire vineyard property to mechanization for four reasons: lack of labor, increased efficiency, improved fruit quality and improved fruit consistency.

“We couldn’t find labor,” Meggitt stated. “Mechanization improved the timing of vineyard operations—for pruning, bud rubbing, hedging, leaf removal, shoot thinning and positioning, cluster thinning and harvesting. Our spray bill dropped 30%, because we were getting light into the canopy, and that helped with the presence of all the diseases.”

All the grapes used by the winery—whether grown in Missouri, Arkansas or Michigan—are grown in mechanically manipulated vineyards. “We’re growing flavors in the vineyard and producing higher margin wines, but we’re still learning how to do this. We’ll improve. Technology will improve,” Meggitt said. “We’ve improved the bottom line for the vineyard; that wasn’t our goal, but it helps.”

West Coast mechanization
Clay Brock, director of winemaking for Turn Key Wine Brands in Santa Maria, Calif., also cited the labor shortage as a major reason for getting into mechanization. He highlighted winemaking benefits of the practice as well:

• More small clusters with small berries and a high skin-to-juice ratio;
• Picking flexibility, and clean picking;
• Night harvesting is possible, with temperatures about 55° F, and early morning delivery at the winery;
• Easier to achieve target Brix levels;
• Very little change in chemistry between hand picked and mechanically harvested fruit.

Mike Draxton, winemaker and owner of Draxton Wines and Draxton Wine Storage in Healdsburg, Calif., custom crushes fruit from California’s Central Coast and the North Coast of California for more than 100 growers. His wine storage facility handles more than 3 million gallons of wine. He also gave lack of labor as one reason for going to mechanization but noted that it was cleaner, faster and more efficient, and also made fruit delivery more timely.

Mechanized pruning “looks like a bad haircut,” he stated, but by late spring, the vineyard starts to look better. Draxton thinks fruit distribution is improved with mechanization, and he noted that dappled sunlight can be seen on the ground. He has fermented hand-harvested and mechanized grapes as separate lots and tasted the results blind. Comparisons for color, tannin, vegetativeness and overall ripening have convinced him that mechanization is equal to or better than conventional farming and that growers are not sacrificing quality. Another advantage is that grapes can be harvested at the optimal time, without waiting for a crew to show up to harvest the grapes.

The final speaker was Jennifer Haun, a red wine enologist at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Wash. “We realized our work force was dwindling,” she said, “and we decided to fine-tune (mechanized) techniques before we had to use them.” She supervised a 2016 trial, in which 6 acres of Cabernet at the Mercer McCavalie Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA in southeastern Washington was divided into six sections—three farmed with a hybrid of hand labor and mechanization, and three with mechanization only.

After harvest, Haun made the wine in two batches but didn’t alter her winemaking practices. The conventional, hand-harvested fruit produced 5.6 tons per acre, while the mechanized plots yielded 7.1 tons per acre. The Brix readings were very close (25.6° for hand-harvested, 25.7° for mechanized), and the numbers for total acidity (0.39 for hand-harvested, 0.44 for mechanized) and for pH (3.97 for hand-harvested, 3.88 for mechanized) were slightly different.

Haun noted that the finished wines had slight differences in both alcohol and tannin levels. She said Chateau Ste. Michelle is planning to expand mechanization trials across the state. “It takes time and practice to get it right,” she said.

Tasting the results
Striegler said that, “To pay for a piece of equipment, you have to run it across a certain number of acres to make it worth it. He noted that for growers with less acreage, the solution may be to hire a custom harvester service or to set up a cooperative ownership with several other growers. It “may become a question of ‘can you farm or not?’” The shortage of labor is an issue that is not going away.

After the session, attendees were invited to sample wines made by the speakers. Meggitt poured two white wines: a dry Seyval and a slightly sweet Vignoles, both grown in mechanized vineyards. Haun offered two barrel samples of 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon from Mercer McCavalie Vineyard—one grown using conventional farming, and one with mechanization. The wines were almost identical in flavors and taste. Brock also poured two wines made with grapes from mechanized vineyards, a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon.

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