March 2012 Issue of Wines & Vines

Making the Switch

What to know when pursuing mechanical winegrape harvesting

by Andrew Adams
CLICK PHOTO TO PLAY VIDEO: Staff with Walsh Vineyard Management shot this video of a demonstration of a Pellenc harvester equipped with the company's Selectiv sorting technology.
It’s faster, it’s cheaper, and proponents claim the quality has never been better. In fact, some say machine-harvested grapes often arrive at the winery in better condition than hand-harvested fruit. But what does a grower need to know to make the switch? What are the costs and potential savings, and what preparation is necessary in the vineyard?

As machine harvesting grows more prevalent, Wines & Vines is talking to growers and other experts to gain a better understanding of what vineyard owners and winemakers should know if they want to use the method.

Cheaper and faster
Like everything in the vineyard, the cost of machine harvesting depends on a host of variables. Yet most sources we interviewed said machine harvesting costs about a third to half of what it costs to hire a crew to hand-pick grapes.

John Ledbetter, a partner and CFO of Lodi, Calif.-based Vino Farms, said it generally costs about $40 to $50 per ton to harvest with a machine. To pick the same grapes with a hand crew, it would probably be closer to $100 per ton. Add to that the cost of the tractors and trucks still needed with a hand crew, and the cost is closer to $150 per ton.

Vino Farms manages more than 13,000 acres in 10 California counties stretching from Sacramento County in the northern Central Valley to Santa Barbara County on the Central Coast. Most of the company’s acreage is machine harvested.

Ledbetter said machines are faster and far more efficient. Two to four people operating machines can replace a crew of 60 to 70 laborers. “It’s pretty easy to do the math on that,” he said.

Ledbetter said that some of the early harvesting technology was pretty rough on the vines. A few decades ago, he said, you could tell a machine had gone through by telltale signs of battered vines and torn canes. “Today, with the technology that’s out there, you have to get out of your truck to see if the vines were picked by machines.” The new technology is also being embraced by the next generation of winemakers, whom Ledbetter said have seen the advantages of machine harvesting.

Towle Merritt is a viticulturist with Napa, Calif.-based Walsh Vineyard Management Inc., which operates the new Pellenc Selectiv’ Process Harvesters. In a general example, not including hauling and with the assumption that grapes are being picked into half-ton bins, he said the Pellenc system will average $140 per ton, while a hand-harvesting crew would average $385 per ton. (Those costs also include loading area, ground support and night harvesting as a constant.)

Merritt said the machines may require 90-120 minutes of cleaning, service and set up to be ready for the next shift. Once at a vineyard, they can be picking about 30 minutes after warming up. In comparison to a hand crew, the machines are not just faster but also require less supervision and extend the working day. Merritt said the machines can average about 1.25 acres per hour.

The main interest in Walsh’s machines has been quality, Merritt said. The top priority for clients in the Napa and Sonoma area is to preserve the condition of their grapes. “Saving money at harvest doesn’t work at all if we cannot meet our clients’ high wine quality expectations. Our clients are specifically requesting Pellenc Selectiv’ Process Harvesters. We have other harvesters available to our clients, but many do not want to use them. The economics gets them to the door; the technology and quality of harvest pushes it over the top, no matter what the headline is in the business section.”

On the Central Coast
Gregg Hibbits, general manager at Mesa Vineyard Management, based in Templeton, Calif., said Mesa owns seven harvesters and manages five more. The company uses nine Gregoire machines, two from Braud and one Pellenc. He said costs for machine-harvested fruit tend to average $300-$350 per acre. When compared to hand harvesting, which Hibbits said can run $150-$200 per ton, machines are often the cheaper option. He added that growers should be aware that new machines with equipment like onboard destemmers can yield fruit so clean that they may lose money on total weight.

Mesa mainly farms large properties, so Hibbits said he will park a machine at the vineyard until harvesting is finished. He said the company does some custom harvesting, and Hibbits said he likes to have at least 24-hour notice. He admits, though, that harvest is often “organized chaos,” and he’ll just shoot for noon on the scheduled day to pick. On the Central Coast, Hibbits said machine harvesting has gone mainstream, and only the smallest vineyards (one to two acres) are still harvested by hand.

Greg Kovacevich, owner of Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Vineyard Ops Inc., said he gained a few new clients for machine harvesting during the past vintage because of a lack of labor. He said many of his clients already have long-term agreements that spell out whether to harvest with machines or not as well as the responsibilities of the harvester and grower. Contracts can vary based on what costs the growers and wineries may be willing to shoulder, such as hauling the harvested grapes. Kovacevich said he prefers just to harvest and leave the hauling to his clients.

Kovacevich said growers need to determine if their property can be harvested with machines and if the winery on the receiving end can process machine-harvested grapes. He said many of his machines get scheduled at large vineyards for the duration of harvest. In between those larger picks, Kovacevich said he likes to fill in the gaps with custom harvest jobs for growers with vineyards in the range of 20-30 acres. He prefers to visit a vineyard in the winter or spring to get a sense of the terrain, but if a grower calls him and needs a machine, he can probably arrange for one the same week, sometimes with just 24-48 hours notice. “Harvest is so fast and furious, it’s really difficult to make too many long-range plans,” he said.

While he can run the machines at any time of the day to pick, he prefers to operate at night, when it’s cooler. Vineyard Ops has six Braud machines and can harvest from Lake County to the Central Coast. In past vintages, Kovacevich said he’s gone from Healdsburg to Paso Robles and can be set up to run in 20 hours. “When you’ve only six weeks to make 90% of your revenue, you make it happen,” he said.

90% in New York
Dr. Timothy E. Martinson, senior extension associate with Cornell University, said that even in New York—the birthplace of the mechanical grape harvester in the United States—some growers were skeptical of machines. These were owners of smaller vineyards who prided themselves on producing premium grapes. However, as technology improved from some of the first-generation Chisholm-Ryder machines to harvesters with gentler processing methods, more growers opened up to the methods.

And it takes just a few challenging vintages for growers to see the benefit of harvesting in terms of acres per hour rather than days. “That seems to change a lot of minds about it.”

Now Martinson estimates that more than 90% of the region’s winegrapes are harvested with machines. In addition to being cheaper and quicker, Martinson said the machines enable growers to manage the varying ripening patterns of the many different varieties of grapes in the state.

Some trellis styles like split canopy, Lyre trellis and head-trained vines do not work with machine harvesting. Older wires, posts and sprinklers may not be able to hold up to machine harvesting. And just like other vineyard machines, harvesters can be limited when the ground is saturated after heavy rain. While the harvesters continue to improve, many hillside vineyards remain inaccessible.

Machines may require fewer workers, but operators need to be trained to drive the machines and coordinate the speed of the harvesting apparatuses, machines and ancillary trucks or tractors.

Operator must dial in
Mark Neal, owner of Napa Valley vineyard management company Jack Neal and Son, owns two Pellenc harvesters. “They’re beautiful machines, and they do a great job,” he said. “It does a fantastic, clean job, and if you have the right operator that’s dialed in correctly, it makes all the difference in the world.”

Neal said he has seen an increase in demand for machine-harvested fruit, and that’s largely because quality has improved. “It’s not always 100% the answer, but the quality aspect of the machines is something a lot of people need to look at.”

Some of the newest machines feature sorting systems on board, but one limitation to mechanizing can arise if a grower has to contend with rot or other crop problems. “At some point you have to accept a hand crew going through and selecting out clusters or sending a machine through that picks everything,” said Dr. James Wolpert, viticulture and extension specialist for the University of California, Davis.

The challenge of mechanically harvesting fruit infected with Botrytis has been one of the reasons that the method has not caught on in Oregon, said Kevin Chambers, chief marketing officer for Oregon Vineyard Supply, which includes the vineyard management company Results Partners. He added that grower concerns for quality also have limited the spread of mechanical harvesting.

“First off, most of Oregon’s production is focused on the highest quality portion of the production spectrum. In that vein, mechanically harvested fruit has always been viewed as suspect. Some larger growers (or) wineries have moved in that direction to reduce costs, but they find that the machines aren’t used enough to amortize the cost, so the savings are suspect.”

Chambers also observed that many of the state’s vineyards are located on steep hillsides and were established with trellising that makes mechanized harvesting difficult. “I do think there will be a place for mechanical harvesting in Oregon, but it needs to be planned from the start.”

Big initial costs
New machines can cost around $350,000, and even used machines can fetch prices of $100,000. Wolpert, the UC extension viticulturist, said that demand could outstrip the supply of available machines. The benefit of quicker mechanized harvesting is obviously lost when a machine can’t get to your vineyard in time. How demand will balance supply in the next few years remains to be seen. “The question is how in sync will that be.”

While Virginia is home to a fast-growing wine industry boasting nearly 200 wineries and almost 300 vineyards, Virginia Tech’s Dr. Tony Wolf said he believes only one winery has a mechanical harvester. “Some of us have talked about cooperative ownership or custom harvesting, but nothing has been done on that here,” he said. “We don’t have economic models to inform us what size vineyard or what grapes are valued at to justify a harvester.”

Wolf also reiterated concerns about dealing with rot. “Sure, it’s one thing to use the harvester to beat a hurricane with a few days’ advance notice—if the grapes are nearly ready to harvest anyway. But if the grower is willing to accept some loss to rot in return for higher wine quality potential of the remaining fruit, she will be forced to go in and sort the fruit at harvest; something the machines don’t do a good job with.”

Merritt, of Walsh vineyard management, said buying a new harvester is a serious undertaking. “Buying new technology harvesters is very capital intensive. One should consider that having one harvester is not a robust business plan. Other considerations are the learning curve, equipment transporter requirements and having mechanics that can work on them,” he said. “We see this as a highly specialized business with economies of scale playing a big factor in keeping down costs and quality of service high. Owning the harvester is 50% of what is needed to be successful; the other 50% is the hard part.”

In California’s Central Valley, more than 95% of all the region’s grapes are harvested by machine, and Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers, expects that number to rise to 99%.

When asked if that trend will likely continue through the rest of California, Wolpert is unambiguous, saying, “Yes, no doubt about it.”

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