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With a shortage of hands, Virginia wine country turns to machines

When it comes to wine, many decisions in the vineyard can affect quality and taste: density of vines, uniformity of grapes, frequency of fungicide, weather.

What might not make a difference — at least, as much as tasters and growers think it does — is whether or not grapes were picked by hand or machine.

The decision to mechanize or not is one weighing on Virginia winegrowers’ minds, especially as the wine country grows, gaining national and international attention.

Some have already mechanized. Lakeview Vineyard Equipment, a vineyard machinery distributor, has sold mechanical harvesters, leaf removers, trimmers and pesticide sprayers to several vineyards in Virginia. Keswick Vineyards has been mechanically harvesting grapes for almost 10 years.

Mechanization is not without controversy: Virginia’s slopes and smaller vineyards make mechanization not only difficult but costly. That’s not to mention the pushback from certain industry insiders who maintain that mechanization might negatively affect the harvest, producing lower-quality wine.

But with a small and unreliable local labor pool and high-cost barriers to importing foreign labor, mechanization might just be “inevitable,” said Stephen Barnard, president of the Monticello Wine Trail and former winemaker at Keswick Vineyards.

“The labor pool hasn’t grown as exponentially as the amount that vineyards are growing,” Barnard told The Daily Progress. “The question mark of labor and mechanization is going to be interesting. There’s been a lot of inquiries into harvesting and mechanization.”

“I do think there’s going to be a certain paradigm shift to the use of that,” Barnard said.

When a winegrower decides it’s time to pick a grape, it’s often a race against the clock. Fickle and furious Virginia weather can narrow the picking window to a day or less. Wait too long, and the crop could be damaged or lost.

For vineyards with an on-site crew, that means all hands on deck. But for vineyards without a stable, abundant source of labor, using a machine allows a winegrower to harvest quickly without waiting for extra hands to show up.

Keswick started using automated machinery to pick its grapes in 2015, said Barnard, now the winemaker at Delfosse Vineyards & Winery.

“There are not enough good, skilled laborers to manage the amount of vineyards that need to be served,” Barnard said. “When we’re trying to pick, everyone’s trying to pick. … Having the flexibility of pulling out the harvester, hopping in and going out, there’s value in that.”

At Barboursville Vineyards’ 178 acres under vine, a team of roughly 20 laborers works to prepare the grape fields for the harvesting machine, which Barboursville winegrower Fernando Franco said he has been using for 18 years.

“Without mechanization, we would need 100 people,” Franco told The Daily Progress.

The most obvious barrier to mechanization, especially for smaller vineyards, is the sheer capital investment: It can cost $100,000 for a tow-behind harvester and up to half a million dollars for a fully autonomous vehicle. And that’s not including the continued investment required to calibrate and repair the machines.

“It blows my mind that a vineyard the size of Keswick has a harvest machine,” said Robbie Corpora, winegrower at Grace Estate Winery. “That was a hefty investment for 62 acres.”

Grace hires a small crew of laborers every year through the government’s H2-A program for nonimmigrant, seasonal agricultural foreign labor. That comes with its own set of costs in visas, transportation and housing. But for Corpora’s vineyard, it’s worth it.

“There’s no work that’s more detailed and precise than the handwork,” Corpora told The Daily Progress. “If you watch a leaf-puller go through a vineyard, it looks pretty destructive for the grapevine. You watch the crew go through and pop little leaves off, you can barely tell there was a leaf there to begin with.”

Jonathan Wheeler, winemaker at Trump Winery, agreed.

“I prefer using my team because they have eyes on everything that I want and they know what to exclude,” Wheeler told The Daily Progress. “If we get some clusters that have detritus or mold and the machine goes down and picks it, it’s going to be in the wine.”

But mechanical harvesters have advanced over the years. The idea that mechanically harvested grapes are lower in quality is largely a “myth,” and one pervasive among Lakeview Vineyard Equipment’s prospective customers, according to company President Joe Pillitteri.

In California, the majority of vineyards use autonomous machines to harvest their grapes. In a place where labor is expensive and often scarce, mechanization is often the cheaper option, according to Anita Oberholster, professor of cooperative extension in enology in the department of viticulture and enology at University of California, Davis.

According to multiple studies by Oberholster and her colleagues to compare wines made with handpicked and mechanically harvested grapes, the differences between the two are “extremely subtle,” Oberholster said.

In one study published in 2016, blind tastings between hand- and mechanically picked pinot noir produced only two differences among 18 “aroma, taste and mouthfeel attributes tested.”

“There wasn’t a clear quality difference among these wines,” Oberholster said. “There were very small differences, differences that I think your general consumer would probably not pick up on.”

While mechanical harvesting might hold different implications among varieties, other studies in California’s vineyards reached the same conclusion.

“At the end of the day, I think if you don’t have the labor, [mechanized harvesting and sorting] is not as detrimental as people think,” Oberholster said. “It doesn’t have as big of an impact as people believe by what their eyes show them.”

Many newer harvesters come with “optical sorters,” which mechanically sort desirable grapes from unwanted ones. Sorters can be extremely gentle and precise, filtering out around 99.8% of leaves, sticks and other “matter other than grapes,” or MOG, Pillitteri said.

The newer models of harvesters shake the picked grapes, which fall through a belt with holes in it, filtering out sticks, leaves and stems, he explained. Then a pressurized stream of air is applied to shoot out anything that is “light,” including raisins and under ripe berries.

“What we’re left with is basically perfect berries in the harvest,” said Pillitteri.

To address the “freakout factor” of a new, intimidating machine, Pillitteri said Lakeview’s technicians train a vineyard’s staff upon delivery of the machines and then return before harvest to make sure the operator is “completely comfortable.”

It’s not as complicated as it seems. “Most operators, within a half an hour of training, are what I would consider near-experts on using them,” Pillitteri said.

And despite the upfront cost, Pillitteri said his customers agree it is worth it.

There are other ways to deal with the price tag. In California, vineyards can rent out machinery for the harvest instead of purchasing their own equipment, Oberholster said.

Lakeview also sells used harvesters and mechanical equipment, which reduces cost significantly. The company once sold a used harvester to a vineyard with only 4 1/2 acres, Pillitteri said.

After 18 harvests, Franco at Barboursville said his harvester still runs “beautifully.”

“It harvests, cleans the grapes, destems them, and only the green fruit falls into its tanks,” Franco said. “The only thing that it doesn’t do is ferment the wine.”

There is still the question of practicality: Virginia’s farmland is often sloped, with vines planted close together, such as Trump’s. One of Wheeler’s concerns with using a mechanical harvester is that a machine might slide and get stuck in the mud on a rainy day.

“If it slid into the vineyard, how am I going to get it out? And now I’m waiting on all this fruit,” Wheeler said.

Oberholster said there is a movement in Europe to make machine harvesting more accessible. That means planting new vineyards further apart and higher off the ground to make mechanical harvesting easier and circumvent the same labor shortages in Europe.

Those working in Virginia’s vineyards appear to carry a similar sentiment. Pillitteri said there is a “growing market” for Lakeview in Virginia, and winegrowers similarly remarked on the growing interest in mechanization.

“In Virginia, we’re still very much doing everything by hand,” said George Hodson, president of the Virginia Wine Board and CEO of Veritas Vineyards and Winery. “We have been trying to move more and more mechanized, as much as we possibly can."


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