Greg Kovacevich is getting more calls these days for his fleet of mechanical harvesters to roll through ever-more-premium vineyards of California coastal growing regions.
A decade ago when he purchased a company with five harvesters, Kovacevich would have to take jobs as far away as Texas to stay busy.
Today, Santa Rosa-based Harvest Pro Mechanical operates 15 of the over-the-row tractors just in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake counties and the Central Coast. These specialized New Holland Braud tractors that straddle the vine trellis on a vineyard row cost about $300,000 new, versus traditional $40,000 tractors that run between the rows.
“We were busy, even in the crash of 2008,” said Kovacevich, president and CEO. “Wineries had more difficultly selling high-end wines, and they were looking at ways they could be dropping costs, so we were getting more calls. Recently, the push has been because of dwindling labor.”
Vinescape in the Napa Valley is working with technology that plants vines at a rate of 14 per minute and is guided by GPS. What traditionally takes a crew of 20 to plant by hand can be done by a team of six.
Multiple factors both local and national are blending to make it tough to find enough field workers. On top of historically low unemployment and soaring costs for what housing can be found, younger workers have been increasingly turning to the construction and hospitality industries as well as higher education, rather than the vineyards. And changing immigration policy has moved North Coast growers toward foreign-worker programs, such as the federal H-2A visa, to fill dozens of open positions on their crews.
Mechanization and automation have been a somewhat tough topics for a segment of the business. They include those who hold that certain operations done by hand — picking clusters, sorting grape berries — have been viewed as hallmarks of wine quality.
While a recent shortage of hands for vineyard and winery tasks has made more in the industry open to it, research and development of technology that lightens the human workload must become more of a focus of capital spending and business strategy, if North Coast producers want to continue to compete on the world stage, says one industry expert.
“I’ve been hearing for a long time that we do not have to spend on it because we can get it from Australia or Europe,” said Roger Boulton, Ph.D., who holds the Stephen Sinclair Scott Endowed Chair in Enology at the University of California, Davis, Department of Chemical Engineering. “That’s not innovation. Yet the same people will talk about innovation.”
A go-to researcher on wine-production technology, he laments that less government, industry or company funding is going into research and development of tools specifically for California’s wine business, compared with money going into other agricultural products in other states and even the beer business.
He points to this example: Treasury Wine Estates is installing sensors on tanks at its Napa Valley wineries to automatically monitor the fermentation process at any given time, rather than the traditional method of having cellar workers take samples from tanks.
The advantage of such sensors is to be able to respond to winemaking crises such as a “stuck” fermentation — yeast conversion of sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide gas dramatically slows or stops — in enough time to respond. Such information can also feed into larger winery-management strategies to reduce energy and water costs, with decisions and actions taken remotely, Boulton said.