Because of labor shortages, up to 95 percent of Washington’s wine grapes is harvested mechanically.
THE TRUTH OF the matter is that Washington’s agricultural industry relies heavily on migrant labor to bring food to our tables and wine to our lips. It doesn’t matter whom you voted for or where you stand on immigration policies in this country. It takes a lot of laborers — some, but not all, of them here illegally — to pick our asparagus, apples, peaches and wine grapes.
In recent years, that labor pool has vanished as more migrants have returned to Old Mexico than have crossed the border north. Or they have settled their families into a permanent home with better, less-strenuous jobs.
It’s a problem in California and up the West Coast to Washington. Plus, the labor pool here often is lured away to work in more-lucrative cherry and apple orchards — and not in vineyards.
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Increasingly, grape growers are looking for ways to replace this vanishing labor force with machines.
Washington has been experimenting with machine-picking for nearly a half-century. The first success with machines took place in the Yakima Valley in 1968.
Today, by some estimates, 90 to 95 percent of Washington vineyards are machine-harvested.
In fact, it is the height of wine snobbery to refuse to drink wines made from machine-harvested grapes.
Because of labor shortages, even higher-tiered wines are being machine-picked. It simply comes down to the winemaker accepting grapes that are picked mechanically, or not getting grapes at all.
Over the years, blind tastings of hand-picked vs. machine-picked grapes have shown little difference, an exercise repeated at this winter’s Washington Winegrowers annual convention.
While labor shortfalls were the initial driving force in the push toward mechanization, next on the list is efficiency. A talented picker can make $20 an hour picking premium cabernet sauvignon grapes on Red Mountain. A crew running a mechanical harvester can pick an entire vineyard efficiently and affordably, keeping farming costs down and allowing the Washington wine industry to compete on the world wine stage for both quality and value.
More than the harvesting process is being mechanized. Machines are able to prune vines, thin leaves and clusters, and even move trellis wires. All of this significantly cuts labor costs with the side benefit of preventing on-the-job injuries.
Fortunately, the grape varieties grown in Washington — especially thick-skinned cabernet sauvignon — are perfect for mechanization. Machines are able to deliver fruit to winemakers in pristine condition.
And the technology continues to improve. Already, harvesters equipped with optical sorters can provide even better grapes for reserve-tier wines. The technology exists for growers to map terrain, soil types, moisture content and more, which allows for better resource management.
Anymore, virtually every new vineyard in Washington will be planted with mechanization in mind.
The wine industry doesn’t have much choice. There simply aren’t enough bodies left to pick the grapes any other way.