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Monday, November 21, 2016

Mechanical Harvesting in Sonoma/Napa

Part of the romance of the Wine Country has to do with the amount of manual labor put into making your wine. People out in the hot sun pulling individual leaves; people out in the vineyard at 3 am to cut each grape cluster lovingly off the vine; young maidens stomping the grapes ...

In the future most of the vineyard work may be done by machine.

Using machinery in the vineyards is nothing new as it has been around for 50 years. Mechanical grape harvesting is the norm in places like Australia where there is no temporary labor force available to do the work.

Mechanical harvesting took a bad rap since it can't "see" what it's picking, but the claim is the harvesters have gotten much better. Why is this important? You don't want unripe fruit, overripe fruit,  stems, leaves, pieces of the trellis wire, etc. This means there is more to sort out.

A recent survey of Napa grape growers showed most plan to replant at least part of their vineyards during the next couple years because of disease and viruses spreading. Issues like this are always a problem with monocropping and much of Napa Valley is one endless stream of vineyards with no breaks making it easy for disease or bugs to spread.

An interesting note in this survey was that many plan to replant with mechanical harvesting in mind. Row spacing and trellising are two of the main design elements that allow for quality mechanical harvesting.

Napa is interested in this because of the high cost of labor as Napa is an expensive place to live. Also, in the current economic climate it's difficult finding vineyard workers. Napa is actually having trouble getting adequate restaurant staff and winery tasting room help as these are lower paying jobs in an area that's expensive to live in.

Sonoma is also a fairly expensive place to reside plus there are new rules coming for sustainable agriculture in the county, part of which is the treatment of workers. This will cost money and may mean the cost of using migrant labor may be higher than the expense of switching to machinery.

Again, this won't happen overnight as most vineyards will require replanting. Some vineyards will never be mechanically harvested because of physical limitations, such as the ground's slope. That old head-pruned Zinfandel? No way. But mechanical harvesting is already here. I don't know how many vineyards in Sonoma and Napa are harvested this way, but the percentage is growing a bit every year.

So is this bad for your future wine? Well, I don't think so. We'll see.