Winegrape Cultural Practices Go Mechanical

Winegrape Cultural Practices Must Go Mechanical for Sustainability

By Emily McKay Johnson, Associate Editor

 

Higher wages handed down by the California Legislature are driving California winegrape growers to mechanize many farming operations. Doug Beckgeographic information systems (GIS) specialist and agronomist for Monterey Pacific Incorporated who works with winegrowers in the Salinas Valley, commented, “We don’t have the people; that’s the main problem. We can put bodies out in the field, but we can’t get the work done the way it needs to be done, at the time it needs to be done,” he said.

Mechanical Box Pruning on Winegrapes
Mechanical Box Pruning on Winegrapes

 

So the industry has no choice but to go mechanical on pruning, leafing as well as harvesting. Beck explained pruning has been tough to mechanize. “We’re basically just trying to do a system that is pruned by a tractor, creating a box head that self-regulates—it sets the amount of crop it needs and grows the size canopy it needs in order to balance that vine, produce good quality grapes and produce enough to be economically viable,” noted Beck.

 

Economic viability—profit—is critical, according to Beck. “In fact, it is true sustainability. Otherwise we’re not in business,” he said.

 

Mechanical pruning essentially creates a hedge every year. Beck explained, “Typically we have pruning spurs that have two buds or three buds, a hand space apart, coming off that cordon that we cut by hand. Instead of just having spurs, we let that grow into a box, and the mechanical pruner cuts along the sides and then across the top of the vine in one pass,” Beck explained. “It looks basically like a long box,” he said.

 

Beck has discovered that mechanical pruning into a box shape on the trellis wires, “works across all varieties we’ve tried. We’re definitely in a cool area for grape production,” Beck said, “so those are the kind of grapes that we’re growing: Pinot Noir, Grenache, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris, along with some Cabernet.”

 

Beck said that winegrape vineyards have a lot of vigor in the Salinas Valley. “You also have big crops, which may also require some shoot or crop thinning. You have to come up with other machines to do the rest of the operations that they usually do by hand.”

 

“The mechanical process appears to be working well because growers are seeing a bump in yield of 30 to 50 percent,” Beck commented, “and they are saving about $1,000 per acre. Economically, it makes a lot of sense.”

 

“Quality is definitely acceptable. It’s as good as any other trellis system we have out there. Quality comes from vine balance and fruit exposure to light, and that box prune system accomplishes both,” said Beck.

Wilson Vineyards Fully Mechanized

Mechanization is Future for Winegrapes

Ken Wilson, winegrape grower and owner of Wilson Vineyards in Clarksburg, just south of Sacramento, farms 12 different winegrape varieties and has been enjoying a productive season despite hot weather. Wilson’s top winegrape varieties are Chardonnay, Petite Sirah and Pinot Grigio (Italian), also known as Pinot Gris (French), and Chenin Blanc.

Presently, Wilson’s winegrapes are past veraison, a stage of ripening in the physical grape maturation cycle in which the berry starts to soften and take on sweetness and color. Veraison is an excellent phase for the winegrapes to be in at this point in the season.

Wilson elaborated, “Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris are probably the furthest ahead, then Pinot Noir at 50 to 60%, and finally, Chardonnay around 30%. We’re getting good color and size now.”

Despite hot weather this year, Wilson says, “it hasn’t been too bad.” Most of his grapes are already contracted, and he anticipates a good vintage. “There are a couple of tons here and there, but [the winegrapes] have been pretty much sold out since early spring,” Wilson commented.

Wilson warned the higher cost of labor due to the recent minimum wage increase in California from $10 per hour currently to $15 in 2020. “We get pretty good winegrape prices. I’m not speaking for the district. I don’t know how some of these guys are going to survive,” he explained.

“We’re going to be forced into mechanization, and the wineries are just going to have to accept it. I think they are going to accept it, if they don’t want to pay [labor increases] anymore,” Wilson said.

Nevertheless, Wilson is more fortunate than some other growers because his vineyard is completely mechanized. “We’re 100 percent machine—other than a couple of special jobs where the winery who wants the grapes will pay for workers for hand harvest.

In comparison to Wilson Vineyards, vineyards in the Napa and Sonoma regions will experience significant wage increases because their winegrapes are hand-harvested. “The only hand harvesting we do amounts to less than one percent,” Wilson said.

Though Wilson evaluated this year’s crop as better than last year, “I think, overall, it is probably not much better than an average harvest, and yields may even be a little lighter than the average. I would say overall about 7.5 tons of winegrapes,” Wilson noted.

 

Appellations Beyond Napa . . .

Grower Andy Beckstoffer on Lake and Mendocino County Appellations

By Charmayne Hefly, Associate Editor

When people discuss California wine, they most commonly associate it as having been grown and produced in Napa. However, Napa isn’t the only northern county to grow grapes that become iconic California wines.Lake County Winegrape Commission

Andy Beckstoffer, owner of Rutherford-based Beckstoffer Vineyards, owns more than 3,000 acres of premium winegrapes. He began his own vineyard in the 1970s in Mendocino and Napa counties before expanding into Lake County as well.

Beckstoffer said that Lake and Mendocino counties were some of the most promising new wine districts in the new world of wine. He ought to know; the California Association of Winegrape Growers named Beckstoffer 2015 Grower of the Year last month.

“Mendocino County has consistently produced some of the best Chardonnay for years,” Beckstoffer said. “We started back in the 1970s, and they continue to do it in the Red Hills of Lake County. The appellation, Red Hills Lake County AVAis where we’re producing Cabernet at a reasonable price–North Coast Cabernet. It’s really the most promising new wine district in the new world of wine because it is encompassed by the vast North Coast AVA,” Beckstoffer said, “and the quality has been proven to be excellent.”

The North Coast AVA encompasses smaller appellations in six counties north of San Francisco: Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, and Solano. Lake County AVAs