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THE 2007 HARVEST

In Napa, deus ex machina?

Nervous about a future without immigrant workers to pick the grapes, vintners flirt with mechanical harvesters.

September 19, 2007|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

NAPA — VALLEY vintners had already started buzzing about a promising 2007 vintage when Aug. 27 dawned and pandemonium broke loose. Temperatures soared above 95 degrees and stayed there for 10 days. Irrigation systems across the valley were cranked up high to pump water into grapes that otherwise would have turned to raisins. Harvesting whatever was ripe as fast as they could, every available crew worked from midnight to noon without a day off.

Then, as suddenly as the crisis started, it was over Sept. 7. The weather cooled, and the irrigation flow returned to its usual harvest-time slow drip. In keeping with Napa Valley's signature bravura, the buzz about a stellar vintage resumed. The word in the vineyards? This last week of unusually cool days with lingering September morning mist is allowing the extraordinarily small berries in this year's lighter-than-expected crop to finish ripening slowly. It should be a remarkable Napa vintage, perhaps the best in a decade.

Still, there is a sense of unease in Napa. This season there were enough vineyard workers to harvest the precious crop, despite concerns there would be labor shortages as a result of the ongoing efforts to tighten the U.S. border with Mexico. Although there is no official count, vineyard managers say the vast majority of temporary workers that arrive for the fall harvest are in this country illegally. And they aren't certain that those workers will be available in the future. Obviously, the workers are anxious as well.

"We've been [hiring people] with a wink-wink, nod-nod on documentation," says Sam Turner, owner of Vista Vineyard Management. He and other vineyard managers say that if pending regulations making employers responsible for verifying the legal status of their workers take effect, they won't be able to continue playing that game.

There are two times of the year when Napa Valley relies on temporary workers. During August, September and into October, those workers are vital for harvest. And in January, February and into March, temporary workers provide the extra hands necessary for pruning the vines, a less time-sensitive job that can be stretched out over a longer period of time.

In America's premier wine region, the timing of harvest is impossible to predict and requires a large, instantly available workforce. Crews use small, curved knives or clippers to cut individual bunches of grapes from the vines. Moving up the vine rows, they fill small bins with grapes that they will toss into half-ton bins, being careful not to smash the grapes ("berries").

Some vineyard managers hire larger harvest crews that work with 6-inch-deep, stackable grape bins. By not tossing the grapes into larger bins, they intend to further ensure that the grapes arrive at the winery whole, unbruised and less likely to become infected with bacteria from the field.

During the last decade, each evolution in the understanding of the best process for harvesting premium grapes for Napa's sought-after wines has meant more workers in the field and more hands gently moving the fruit from the vine to the fermenter. But all that may change. "If the government goes after employers to enforce the immigration laws, everything will shift to mechanization," Turner says.

Although half of all of the wine grapes in California are harvested by machine, less than 10% of Napa's grapes are harvested mechanically, vintners estimate. The stigma of industrial farming plus a clear sense that quality demands hand-harvesting has kept most vintners from considering it. That's changing, however, with concerns about a labor shortage. A surprising new clutch of ultra-premium wineries this year used mechanical harvesters, if only on an experimental basis.

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Mechanics of a harvester

A 20-foot-high machine straddles a row of vines at Clos Du Val in Stags Leap District. It's narrower than a combine, but its bulk and deafening noise are the hallmarks of industrial farming. Internal hoops vibrate against either side of the vine row, shaking fruit down onto conveyor belts that lift the fruit up to an arm that spews it out into a trailing 2-ton fruit bin. The mechanical harvester moves at a steady pace, the equivalent of a slow jog for any worker on the ground, not stopping until it reaches the end of the row.

One person drives the harvester, and two workers maneuver a pair of tractors pulling fruit bins. Any obvious green fruit and raisiny bunches have been removed by hand the day before in a preharvest pruning. Leaves are blown out the back of the machine.

Unlike the mechanical harvesters available a decade ago that used sticks to knock the fruit onto the conveyor belts and damaged the vines, these machines can be calibrated to gentler vibration levels. The vertical trellising systems popular with high-end Napa vintners are best suited for mechanical harvesters.

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