Perhaps no agricultural crop has been more associated with the work in the fields than the grape. From the Bible to John Steinbeck to Cesar Chavez, the words and images of workers toiling in the vineyards have been ingrained in literature, newsreels and history books.
It’s also a common sight throughout the year in Wine Country, from workers pruning vines in the winter to early morning harvests in the fall. Sonoma County vintners employ an estimated 5,000 people in the fields.
Increasingly, however, machines are taking over. It’s not a science fiction takeover plot, though the lights emanating from machine harvesters at night in areas such as the Alexander Valley resemble the glowing spaceships in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Rather, a tipping point has been reached in the industry, growers said, as technology advances along with a labor shortage. New regulations have driven most vineyard owners and managers to consider more machine picking with the likelihood that the workforce in future years will be much smaller.
“You are going to see more and more,” said Bret Munselle of Munselle Vineyards, which oversees about 600 acres around Alexander Valley. “With labor and water issues, you are trying to get as much machine work as can be done.”
After years of a tight labor market as a result of decreased immigration, growers have been searching for new options. Now they have even more incentives for machine work, farmers contend, with new state laws bumping the minimum wage up to $15 an hour and another requiring that farmworkers get paid overtime after working 40 hours a week or more than eight hours a day. The current standard is 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week for agricultural workers.
“They’re going to do anything that has the potential of relieving some of the pressure of labor accessibility,” said Duff Bevill, of Bevill Vineyard Management in Healdsburg. His company set a record for number of machine harvests this season, using them at least six nights a week for the past six weeks.
The wine grape industry has historically lacked in machine use compared to other agriculture crops, noted Damien Wilson, the Hamel Family Chair in Wine Business at Sonoma State University.
One problem has been the vast number of wineries — there are about 9,500 in North America — compared to other crops that are dominated by a few major corporations, which can implement change much more quickly, Wilson said.
“With such a large number of small producers, initiating change just takes a long time,” he said.
In addition, some smaller vintners and growers, especially in the high-end areas such as Sonoma and Napa counties, may not feel they need to jump on new technology to survive. They have an attitude of “we are in completely and totally different markets so we don’t have to adopt,” Wilson said.
Still, change is coming. More winemakers are starting to believe that machine-picked grapes can deliver as high a quality as those that are hand picked, an idea that historically was met with skepticism. In fact, winemaker reluctance has been one of the biggest barriers given their power in the industry.
“There isn’t another (agriculture) industry like this that inspects the vineyard and tells them what to do,” said Mark Greenspan of Advanced Viticulture Inc., which provides technology to reduce the amount of water used during irrigation.