As April showers add to the already full cup of needed moisture for the 2017 North Coast winegrape season, growers have been busy doing more work in the vineyard at a time of fewer workers available for those tasks.
For the past few years, farm workers have been in shorter supply, no thanks to competition for jobs from other industries, such as construction, and changing government policies toward farmworker immigration.
Science and experience has led to more tasks in the vineyard before the fruit ever reaches the winery. Of the major vineyard tasks during the growing season, roughly half are relatively new, and many remain hands-on work, according to Duff Bevill, owner of Bevill Vineyard Management, which farms hundreds of acres in Sonoma and Napa counties.
“Even in spite of mechanization, which has dramatically dropped the cost of harvesting, we have created over the past two decades so many more tasks in the field that were driven [by] wine quality or for disease control and done by labor,” Bevill said.
To the age-old processes of pruning, suckering (removal of root sprouts from the vine trunk at the ground level) and harvesting have come several tasks under the category of “canopy management” — crop- and shoot-thinning, shoot-positioning, hedging, and removing leaves. Other new tasks are irrigation fine-tuning and crop data collection.
These added tasks have made vineyards in the North Coast and close competitors hot targets for grape contracts and property acquisition, particularly as many major players in the wine business are fast shifting focus to higher-priced wines.
But these enhanced viticultural practices come at an enhanced cost, Bevill said. In the hierarchy of labor-intensive vineyard farming expenses per acre are harvest, pruning, crop-thinning and leaf removal, Bevill said.
“Harvest always is first the discussion, because historically it is the most labor-intensive task in the field,” Bevill said. “Forty years ago, labor was 65 percent of the farming production cost, and it is still that way, if you do it by hand.”
Mechanized harvesting, used for years in higher-production areas of California, has been gaining momentum in higher-value wine regions such as the North Coast in the past few years, largely because of labor availability. Better technology for gentle treatment of the clusters coming off the vine and less “material other than grape,” or MOG, arriving at the winery has helped convince some winemakers to accept that mechanization.
Though used in Australia and Italy for many years and increasingly in the California interior, mechanical pruning is just making inroads into the North Coast. Bevill said a vineyard his company manages was machine-pruned for the first time this winter, four years after the trellis system was set up for the box-pruning style needed for the machinery to work beset.
In addition to the configuration of existing trellises, other obstacles to mechanization remain. Hillside vineyards can have soil and moisture conditions that put just the right amount of stress on vines to coax out desired quality, but the slopes also can challenge operation of tractor-mounted equipment. And equipment that best meets the quality targets for North Coast vineyard operations may not be readily available in stock equipment, requiring ingenuity from fabricators for custom attachments, Bevill said.
VALUE OF VINEYARD TLC
They’re all intended to maximize the vine’s efforts in producing fruit winemakers want, while helping to prevent conditions they don’t, such as “sunburned” grapes, less-concentrated color and flavor, and disease.
Wine Industry Conference
April 28, 2017