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There’s a rumble in vineyards worldwide – a brutal battle brewing between swelling labor costs and dwindling labor forces, leaving vineyard and winery owners reeling as they grapple with bleeding bottom lines.
But the real heavyweight bout pits vineyards opting for mechanization versus hand-harvesting. Recent studies show around 80 percent of California‘s vineyards employ mechanization to mitigate labor issues, while the Institut Français de la Vigne et du Vin reports the current number at somewhere between 60 and 70 percent in France.
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All this jabbing about leaves consumers dazed and confused. For many purchasers, wine represents more than just a product – it signifies status. Major brands and boutique wineries stake their reputations upon «perceived value», an intangible assumption of superiority, built in part upon «bespoke» methods like hand-harvesting.
But what happens when social standing gets trounced by price points as more and more wineries march towards mechanization?
Quality always wins
In the US, California recently passed AB 1066, a law requiring overtime pay for agricultural workers who clock more than 40 hours a week, down from the previously allowed 60 hours a week. About the same time, the state also bumped up the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Ironically, many vineyards and wineries now face downsizing in an effort to meet these mandates, juggling loyalty with survival.
Those with deep pockets opt to invest in mechanization as a way to combat human resource problems. For others, it’s a matter of doing what’s right.
«Great wine is created in the vineyards,» insists Ivo Jeramaz, VP of Vineyards and Production for Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley. «Great vineyards need loving care. You’re not going to get loving care if you don’t treat your workers with equal care. Quality is utmost. Quality always wins. You cannot have quality wine without quality people, and you cannot have quality people without treating them with dignity and respect. We’re just glad these guys got what they deserve – they are a huge asset to our overall strategy, to our wine’s quality, and to our winery’s longevity.»
Jeramaz, nephew of Grgich Hills’ famed co-founder and Napa legend Mike Grgich, also points out that what works for Grgich Hills may not work for others. «We like working with older vineyards. If you want vineyards this old, you must care for them by hand. Economically, mechanization is cheaper, but can lead to loss of vineyards, and loss of quality. This is simply what works for us.»
In Italy’s Maremma region, Riccardo Lepri of Vini Montauto embraces a similar approach on his estate. «Our management has always been ecological, our harvest is manual. It is important to point out the importance of the manual harvest. The manual harvest that we do allows us to bring whole bunches, undamaged, in[to] the cellar. Although this is an extremely long and expensive process, it ensures a natural and healthy product. To get an idea of costs, this year  with a rainy spring, we spent about €500 [$561] per hectare to remove the grass in the vineyards, if we had used pesticides would have spent only €40 per hectare. The grapes are harvested by hand in small boxes; manual harvesting costs about €1200 per hectare, while the mechanical harvesting costs €500 per hectare.”
© Hafner/Puy-Fromage | Rage against the machine
But not everyone believes that hand-harvesting yields better-quality wines.
«I once heard a person, a supposedly professional taster, claim that he could judge from the taste of the wine if it had been hand-harvested or machine-picked. That’s a nice thought, but simply not true,» argues Per Karlsson, editor of Paris-based BKWine Magazine and wine writer for Forbes.com.
«In reality, most of the wine made in the world today is probably – almost certainly, I’d even venture to say – machine picked,» contends Karlsson. «It is difficult to find reliable numbers. But my guess would be that between 60 and 80 percent of all wines are machine picked. And what keeps this number down is that in some New World countries the cost of labor is – sadly – so low that it is still cheaper.»
Karlsson lists other complaints lobbied against mechanization, such as damaged fruit and vines, inclusion of moldy or unripe fruit, and more MOG (material other than grapes, such as insects and reptiles), which workers then have to sift through on the sorting tables. He counters that machine beaters actually shake the fruit, leaving behind unripe fruit on the stem, and advancements in filter design now catch debris other than berries. Additionally, machines allow for picking fruit at optimum cool, early morning conditions, maintaining vivacity, freshness, and pristine aromatics. It’s much easier to start an harvester engine at 2 am than to muster a crew.
According to Rich Matteis, administrator for the California Farm Bureau Federation, such mechanical efficiencies motivate the surge in hi-tech across all areas of vineyard operation in California, including pruning, suckering, and leaf-pulling, as well as vine replacement to more machine-friendly stock.
«Here’s a personal anecdote to put things in perspective,» Matheis offers. «I’ve been working with one vineyard owner [in the state ] since 2008. In 2008, he had 350 employees. Today he has about 35.»
Indeed, even high-end wine grape areas like Napa and Sonoma use mechanization. «This year was the first year we machine-harvested in our 89 years of grape growing, and it cut hand-picking time nearly in half, and maintained the quality of fruit delivered to the winery,» admits Julie Pedroncelli St. John of Pedroncelli Vineyard in Geyserville. «My brother-in-law Lance Blakeley, who is our vineyard manager, wanted to be prepared for labor shortages, and this is one way we can prepare for the eventuality.»
Message in a bottle
For other vineyard owners and wine makers, however, the issue of mechanization remains a non-negotiable. Paul Sloan of Small Vines Wines in Sebastopol. meticulously crafts small-lot wines based upon Burgundian grand cru principles of high density and low yields. While he does admit that AB 1066 raises his production costs, he does not envision changing production methods, except maybe adding more cordon-trained vines. His core crew, most whom have worked with him for 15 harvests, remain dedicated, collaborating with him on scheduling solutions to meet the state mandates. Sloan also realizes he may need to raise his bottle prices just to cover his costs.
«Would DRC change the way they produce wine?» Sloan asks. «I don’t think so. And that’s who we strive to emulate. Mechanization goes against our philosophy.»
Ultimately, Sloan maintains that hand-harvesting enhances the story behind his wines, and that his story sets him apart from his competitors.
«In my experience, we’re heading towards a trend where Millennials are looking for who’s behind the product – they care more about who put it together,» predicts Sloan. «Until now, older consumers have been more interested in prestige and brand names, such a Rolex and Dom Pérignon. But it’s not just about some big-name company putting juice in a bottle to make a buck anymore. Millennials want to know about the person behind the bottle, and they’re willing to spend more money on that story.»