Let's Talk about Picking Grapes

November 14, 2019

Let's Talk about Picking Grapes

The Call is Near

The call for the first pick is just days away now. The majority of time is spent visiting the vineyard block the grapes are coming from. As mentioned earlier the main thing now is to make the correct call to pick where the aromas and flavors of the juice should mimic the imagined aromas and flavors of the wine, together with some of the other influences the “act of winemaking” ADD to the result.

A fair amount of time is spent communicating with the vineyard manager to be sure the crews and equipment are going to be totally devoted to getting the fruit in as quickly as possible after removal from the plant.

Images from the Past

In the past it was often that the crews would start picking “at first light”, that is when it was light enough for them to see what they were doing. Picking would continue over the course of the daylight hours. It wasn’t unusual to be receiving fruit in the early evening measuring 90 – 100 degrees. The skins would be soft and the fruit would just decompose as you ran it through the machines. Both white grapes and red grapes were generally handled the same.

Of course it is clear these hot macerations were not optimal, but it was “just the way things were done” given the need to go after the fruit at optimal ripeness and harvest quickly enough to get “all the tons in”. The use of antioxidants (such as sulfites) was a bit more aggressive (than today) and the introduction of things like heat exchangers and rapid cooling techniques came quickly. One of the obvious reasons to avoid the hot juice was to get a handle on what he juice chemistry before the (must) started fermenting (from the indigenous yeast populations).

The wine business was expanding pretty rapidly, so with all the money being invested, all the “players” involved put up their “A game” and the industry saw rapid improvements in fruit handling equipment and technologies. Improvements in viticulture was also rapid as newer vineyards came in with new rootstocks, scion wood, and farming techniques.

Image of the Present

Today virtually all “fine wines” start with “night picks”. Crews pick and deliver during the overnight hours while the fruit is cold. Picks will usually end no later than mid – day so fruit delivered to the wineries is still reasonably cool. Fewer antioxidants are necessary and there is wide-spread use of dry ice. This necessitates the use of slightly larger crews as night vision will slow things down a bit, and more equipment is necessary to handle the lighting for the picks and staging and loading the fruit on trucks. All of this adds to the cost. But the improvement in fruit quality has been tremendous.

In the last few years, the biggest change has been the decline of the availability of “hand labor”. It is increasingly difficult for the “seasonal” laborer (primarily of latino origin) to find their way to the fields. Laborers are at the very least “semi-skilled” and their value is also in high demand in many other endeavors including construction, food service and the like. Many latinos have excellent skills in concrete (the main building material from home), metal working, anything that requires a skilled hand. 

For these reasons, it is more common now to find vineyard managers short of labor during their busiest time. This leads to delays in scheduling the picks, and of getting the picks in on time. This situation has at least led to most laborers receiving good treatment from employers and relatively good pay. But the work is VERY hard and finding other ways to make equal pay doing something “easier” any laborer looks for.

So viticulturists look to mechanization to make up the difference. More vineyards are managed mechanically than before, although again, the “fine wine” vineyards still rely on the “hand” to do most of the work. Mechanical harvesting is being used far more than in the past but it is virtually impossible to find a harvesting machine that can pick a vine clean with little or no damage of the fruit in addition to NOT including leaves, twigs and other “ MOG “ ( material other than grapes ) and enormous amounts of juice.




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