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  • Writer's pictureTim Hammerich

Behind Wine: How Mechanization is Helping with Vineyard Labor Shortages

The idea of wine country usually conjures images of idyllic rolling hills of peaceful vineyards. Most of us, even the most avid wine consumers, don’t realize the amount of technology that goes into growing grapes.

Richard Hoff is the Director of Viticulture for Mercer Ranches, a vineyard in Washington state. Young, by vineyard standards, Mercer’s 3,300 acres of vines have been planted in the past ten years. They grow over 20 varieties of wine grapes.

Viticulture (the cultivation of grapevines) is a very hands-on activity, historically requiring many hours of physical labor. In many cases this has been an affordable cost of doing business. Grapes can fetch up to the multiple thousands of dollars per ton on yields of 5–7 tons per acre in established vineyards. But as labor costs have risen and qualified help becomes more difficult to find, vineyards like Mercer are investing in technology to remain competitive.

4 Vineyard Tasks Utilizing Mechanization

Vineyard managers must concern themselves with quality just as much as productivity. In many cases managers need to intentionally reduce their potential yields to meet quality standards.

This precise management of both quality and quantity make mechanization tricky. Mercer has been able to reduce dependence on labor by incorporating mechanization in following activities:

  1. Pruning. During dormancy all the vines must be pruned. This has been a notoriously time-consuming and labor-heavy task. Mercer was among the first in the state to bring in the Pellenc TRP Precision Pruner. This has allowed Richard’s team to reduce pruning hours from 30–35 hours per acre to 5–7 hours per acre.

  2. De-Suckering / Shoot-Thinning. Vineyard Mangers get rid of most of the new growth on grapevines (suckers and shoots) in the early Spring. This is essentially pruning at the start of the canopy/fruit growing season as opposed to afterwards (see #1). De-suckering/shoot-thinning technology has been widely used for much longer than the precision pruning described above.

  3. Leaf Thinning. This really shows the amount of precision that goes into growing wine grapes, even at a large scale. Vineyard Managers will thin the amount of leaves around the developing bunches of grapes to make sure they have optimal amounts of sunlight and airflow. Thinning reduces the likelihood of disease and increases the efficacy of fungicide treatments. The sunlight can also improve grape color and breakdown methoxypyrazines, which can give grapes a bad odor and flavor.

  4. Harvesting. Mechanical harvesters are another technology that have been used in viticulture for a long time, but their impact cannot be ignored. There are still some purists that choose to have their grapes hand-harvested, but most commercial vineyards use these large harvesters that straddle the vines and shake the grapes off. The grapes are then sorted right there on the machine before being loaded on trucks to the winery.

“There’s just not much of an argument any more whether mechanization is as good as hand, so more folks are jumping into the arena.” — Richard Hoff

Next Steps

When asked what problem he would like technology to solve for him next, here was Richard’s response:

“I would say wire moving. I feel like we’re very close there. There are a lot of good ideas. The problem is everyone’s trellis is so different, so nobody’s really got excited and built a wire-lifting machine that serves my needs yet. I think we’re getting close there, but that would be a big one. Wire-lifting tends to be a very short-windowed operation. You need a lot of people for a very short period of time, and that can be very difficult to staff. So that would be an operation that would be nice to have mechanized.”

“…And then beyond that I would just say getting to where there’s more automatic data collection in the field as far as bud counting and different yield components. And then being able to automate the tractor driving operation and these tools.”

When you consider how far vineyard technology has come in recent decades, it’s exciting to think of what the future might hold.

I really enjoyed this glimpse into the modern vineyard. Support Richard by buying their Mercer Estates and Mercer Family Vineyards wine at your local store.

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