Vineyard mechanization was a featured topic at the 2017 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento this year and it was a very timely choice. In case you haven’t noticed, the political framework of globalization is unraveling just now, with strong push-back against international movements of goods, services, capital, people and even information.
Restrictions on trade and immigration are much in the news in the U.S, U.K., parts of Europe, Australia and other regions. Many industries are impacted, including especially agriculture. Closing down the flow of workers means fewer resources, higher costs and greater risk.
What’s the best business strategy in the face of anti-globalization policies like immigration restrictions? The right response varies by time, place and industry. Tech giant Microsoft, for example, has responded to international worker restrictions in a number of ways including setting up a research center in Vancouver BC in order to have freer access to the international talent it needs to stay competitive. Canada remains proud of its identity as a nation of immigrants and that’s a selling point in the technology business.
Sometimes you can shift the jobs to where the workers are as in the Microsoft case, but this harder when it comes to agriculture. As farming labor becomes both scarcer in the U.S. and less secure in terms of availability, there is a natural movement towards alternatives, including mechanization as well as shifting to foreign-sourced product.
Look, Ma. No Hands!
We usually think of mechanization as a response to higher labor costs, but in this uncertain environment the imperative is also driven by concerns about availability and security.The Unified Symposium program combined with the massive trade show provided an opportunity to get up to speed on mechanization by attending sessions and touring the show floor asking questions.
For example, Gallo’s Keith Striegler moderated a session titled “Vineyard Mechanization: Moving to the ‘No Touch’ Vineyard” that surveyed state-of-the-art practices that go beyond mechanical harvesting. As the session program explains,
The labor situation in vineyards is reaching a critical stage. Growers are faced with reduced availability of labor while regulations and costs are increasing. The economic viability of sectors of the grape industry has become more challenging. Innovative growers and manufacturers are developing equipment and cultural practices to increase efficiency while maintaining or improving yield and fruit/wine composition. An important component of these efforts is to manage as many operations as possible in mature vineyards using equipment to reduce the number of “Touches” required by labor.
In other sessions Francisco Araujo moderated a Spanish language program on advanced technology in winegrowing and wine making and Steve Mcintyre and Cecilia Aguero led technical exhibit floor tours to help participants connect theory and practice.
The French Connection
Vineyard mechanization technology has improved steadily over the years from the early make-shift grape-sucking contraptions to today’s efficient machines. Most people in the industry recognize mechanization as a choice involving trade-offs and labor issues are increasingly pushing producers towards the machine.
My consumer friends sometimes seem to be shocked with the idea of machine harvest comes up — I guess it doesn’t align with their image of the noble vigneron carefully tending his row of grapes. Machines — it must be a New World thing, they tell me. They would never do it in France!
That comment is a bit ironic. A 2013 Economist article (“Bacchus to the Future“) about mechanization in French vineyards noted that …
France is the undisputed global leader in wine technology … the country has a greater demand for mechanisation than America because its agricultural wages are higher. And France’s reputation means that its elite winemakers, unlike those in other countries, do not have to worry about criticism from elite French winemakers.
Some of the cutting edge technology Sue and I saw at the trade show was made by European manufacturers, which makes sense since France, Italy and Spain together produce more than half the world’s wine (and so are a big equipment market) and, as we just saw, economic incentives to mechanize there can be strong. It would be ironic if “America First” protectionist migration policies pushed US winegrowers to purchase more foreign equipment!
Lodi Night Harvest
Sue and I had an opportunity to see the big machines at work back in 2015 when Fred and Joey Franzia invited us to observe a night harvest at one of Bronco’s Lodi vineyards. Sue took the photo at the top of this column on that visit.
Cold, dark and kinda loud — it wasn’t exactly a romantic “Sideways” vineyard harvest scene. But it sure was effective.We were impressed with the quality of the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that were harvested.
You can bet that the grapes that go into inexpensive wines like Barefoot and Two Buck Chuck are machine harvested and mechanization employed in other vineyard activities, too. But the technology has improved to the extent that it is used to for wines that sell for a good deal more.
Invasion of the Vineyard Machines?
Are the machines coming to a vineyard near you? No, they are probably already there and, as vineyards — even those in iconic regions — are replanted or renewed, you can be sure that one factor that will be considered is the potential to maximize technological compatibility.
Hand work in the vineyards is not going to disappear and many wineries will continue to rely upon their teams of highly-skilled vineyard workers for years to come. But what we are seeing is that the business model associated with vineyard labor is changing rapidly. Technology, economics and anti-globalization politics are all part of the dynamic.
It was great to see everyone at the Unified Symposium. Great sessions and an incredible trade show plus all the top people in U.S. wine. Here is a photo of me speaking at the State of the Industry session.
Here in the UK many of us are *very* nervous about potential immigration controls following Brexit. Our small scale means that mechanisation is out of the question for the majority of growers (restrictions of physical size and costs), plus spur pruning’s not ideal in such a marginal climate. Almost everyone who uses gang labour in their vineyards hires Eastern Europeans, for a number of reasons which make logistic & economic sense. To compound matters, traditional method sparkling – our primary product – requires hand harvesting.
(and let’s not get started on the weakness of sterling vs. the cost of any specialist kit, which would be denominated in $ or €)
All in all, please keep your fingers crossed for those of us who would struggle to take advantage of mechanisation!
Fingers crossed! The English wine industry shows such promise — it would be a shame to see it set back by Brexit.