Monday, August 28, 2006

Mechanical harvesting

I've been talking to a few winemakers in the area who might be looking to mechanical harvesting should harvest labor be in short supply due to some immigration bill Congress might pass in the next month - even though the immigration bill is pretty much dead.
(And why wouldn't it be dead? - no politician in their right mind [yes there are a few of 'em] would think that having a statute like that being voted on was actually a good idea in an election , much better to just raise the issue to polarize the voters, then let it die quietly without ever having to cast a vote. Not to mention that big business interests without a doubt put the brakes on it...)

Immigration bills, while a chilling effect to many agricultural labor pools, aren't as likely as problems caused by compressed vintages and weather fluxuations...
Back in '04 there was a heat spike that happened right during the last phase of ripening, which started to dehydrate fruit & caused a pick-a-thon in the North Coast: so many growers/producers were trying to get labor lined up that it was almost impossible to ever really feel like you'd gotten the situation under control...many time you'd have a crew bought out from underneath you by someone else with deeper pockets who could offer more (no names mentioned) - or who had a larger vineyards & could offer more total work to the pickers, making it worth their while to pick at their place & secure more income.

Potentially the amount of mechanical harvesting could increase this year, but maybe not so much in North Coast - the terrain is just too hilly in many spots....that and the popular perceived reputation of mechanical harvesters as being more suited to bulk wine producers...
And of course it DOES depend on what kind of trellis system you have: vertical trellis systems are useful for harvesters, but the more intricate lyre-type, or split-canopy trellis types aren't set up for a mechanical harvester. Also, drip irrigation vineyards are preferred to the typical sprinkler type irrigation becaue the drip lines are lower - generally under the "fruit zone" where the shaking really occurs - and are more flexible and less likely to end up breaking.

Now that "bulk wine" reputation may have been deserved 10~20 years ago, but technology has increased quite a bit in the past decade-and-a-half, and they now treat fruit much gentler than in the past (I remember seeing a harvester back in the early 80's that literally looked like it had just been driven over from a walnut farm, and it shook the holy beeejeeezuz out of entire vine like a rag doll in a pit bull's mouth - thank god they've improved...).

Certainly it's useless to pick with one if you're looking to get your fruit into the press still on the stem to ensure freshness (what most refer to as "whole clusters"), or if I was trying for more of a carbonic maceration style - since the fruit needs to be on the stem and not broken open, and by popping it off of the stems & splitting it defeats the purpose. In fact, many times there reallly isn't any reason to put mechanically harvested fruit through the crusher/stemmer, since it was quite literally shaken right off the vine. Well, except for the fact that you'd want to use the stemmer as a way of making sure none of the irrigation sprinkler heads went into your press or must pumps...because that shaking motion of the harvester can really knock them off their stands.
They're still not as gentle as by hand, though most are now ok if you're not taking too long to get it into the winery, or if you're adding sulfur or dry ice in the field to keep it from oxidizing too much. Still I wouldn't make the trip into the winery more than 30 minutes from the moment it's first picked to the time it's in the press.

Some links to companies that make harvesters: Gregoire, Pellenc, BEI...which is just a small sampling of companies...and to GrapeHarvesterUSA which sells use of their harvesters, as well as leasing and service of units...
I had a link to video of one in use...but can't seem to locate it right now. I believe it was of a Pellenc model...

...meanwhile as I relocate the video link, here's a link to a page with some nice photo's of people using one in New Zealand:
[Wine of the Week page]

If I were loking to use a harvester, I'd ensure the weather forecast predicted fog for the times I picked with cool temps, or perhaps by picking at night when I was going to use one (that might also limit the number of people who witnessed it being used too - if you're leery of what it could do to your reputation!). Unfortunately, unless you're thinking along the lines of using a harvester before the fact, it would probably be applied as an "emergency" measure when the weather really started to heat up and you had more fruit to pick than you could manage in a short time, so having your "druthers" as to when and under what weather you were using it probably wouldn't be an option for most people.

As a betting man, I'd be thinking about it as a contingency plan - at least making sure I was talking with someone who had one/access to one, just to ensure I had picking capacity in case immigration becomes an issue when getting people to pick, or when the weather turned against you.


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