Agriculture is at the heart of winemaking and, as in most farm activities, is hard work. Yes, it also has the elements of romance, but it is still farming. From one harvest to the next it is 11 months of waiting and 1 month of fever pitches activity. Until the last decade, the harvest was a function of hand labor sometimes working around-the-clock to get the grapes picked at the optimum time. Often vineyard owners were at the mercy of available labor. Today, labor is expensive and in short supply to work in the harvest.
Obviously, much has been done over the past 10-20 years in addressing potential solutions to the issue of available labor and its increasing costs. Automation is one of the solutions and now drones are figuring into the mix. In an October 2011 article, Jon Feere noted, “… employers will face a new environment with fewer available workers. This, in turn, will likely fuel the trend toward more mechanization in the vineyards, which will likely require more highly-trained workers.” Mr. Taylor of UC Davis also commented that in the medium to the long run, the answer (to the labor issues in wine country) is to bring new technology to produce more crops with fewer workers.” Today, mechanization in the vineyard in Sonoma and Napa is growing at about 4% per year.
In spite of what we read about the immigrant labor market, labor in the wine business is a delicate balancing act between demands for maintaining the vineyard (translating into a constant labor demand) and peaking labor demands brought on at harvest. Obviously, harvest is a time when everyone needs labor for a short burst of activity. Approximately 50% of annual operating costs are incurred in harvesting fruit; that means labor can account for the single largest cost item in getting grapes to crush.
To level out the labor demand curve and improve quality of the fruit that goes to crush, many vineyard operations are turning to automation. Today’s automated machinery not only harvests the grapes but can be used for multiple vineyard tasks throughout the year. For example, many of the machines used in the vineyard are capable of multiple tasks that cut costs. Some machines not only pick the grapes, but can spray, and do pruning. Still, the most cost effective use of automation is in harvesting the grapes.
Over the past decade, vineyards have been hard pressed to find enough labor for harvest and even that labor is getting to be very expensive. So, as Jon Feere points out, mechanization is the answer. Recently, I was in Sonoma and watched a mechanized Pellenc harvester at work and saw the results, it was truly amazing at the efficiency and speed at which these harvesters work. In fact, the improvements in the machinery are constantly being upgraded.
In the past there were some issues about the viability of automated vineyard machinery. Some said that automated harvesting had a negative effect on grape quality. Blind testing by Pellenc, a manufacturer of high-end automated vineyard machinery, has shown that grapes harvested using automated methods has equal quality fruit delivered to the winery as hand-picked fruit.
New technology has seen even the most traditional winemakers using automated machines versus hand picking. Some labor intense functions performed at the winery in the past (such as hand sorting) are now being performed by automated harvesting machines in the vineyard with on-board berry separating and sorting systems. Through an array of plastic fingers, directed by sensors, strike as the stem holding the cluster of grapes. They operate at 500 RPM to get the cluster to release from the vine. These plastic fingers, being 40 inches long, travel 10 inches to sense the grape cluster. Then, through a series of sensors and without crushing the grapes, the harvester removes “logs” (as they are called in the industry), leaves and poor quality grapes and leaves the undesirable material in the vineyard. Then the grapes go to the winery.
This is a two stage process. The first stage is a berry separator which uses a linear vibration to separate the berries from the stems. The second stage is a roller sorting table which allows desired fruit to drop into on-board stainless bins.
Simply stated, machinery can perform operations that improve quality in the fruit delivered to the winery; sorting the grapes by pre-determined quality standards. “It’s nice to get whole grapes to the winery without smashed clusters of grapes,” says one vineyard owner.
In today’s environment, with demand for better quality grapes (not bruised and damaged); there is an economic case to be made justifying automated harvesting. Some analysis indicates that using an automated harvester is justifiable with as few as 10 acres. Considering that automated harvesting operations generally costs $200 per ton while hand-picking can cost approximately $450 per ton, the math gets easy to understand. Based upon acreage, machines can do a better job picking the fruit and at 50% of the cost of hand picking.
“The cost pressures on wineries to produce quality wines at reasonable price points dictates the industry must control the primary costs in getting grapes into juice; that being labor, while improving quality of the fruit delivered to the winery”, says Lance Van Dehoef of Pellenc. “An automated harvesting process in the vineyard delivers on these two requirement-lower costs and higher quality.”
There are about 5 manufacturers of automated machines for the wine industry, domestically there are3 companies. With constant advancements in the capabilities of the equipment, the industry sells about 150 pieces of equipment per year in the U.S. The average price of a multi-purpose machine will cost a vineyard owner $200,000 with a top price of $430,000.
As in the old adage -Necessity is the mother of invention. It appears the delicate grape is meeting automation much like other agricultural processes. Even milk is gathered in a totally automated process today.