Chateau Ste. Michelle’s wines are world-renowned. So when its viticulture department turned to mechanized vineyard practices to compensate for scarcer skill labor, there was no rush to put the practices into place.
“We figured we needed to fine-tune these different techniques before we had to use them,” said Jennifer Haun, an enologist with Chateau Ste. Michelle, addressing a crowd of vineyard peers at the Unified Wine & Grape Conference.
The winemaker conducted research during its vineyard mechanization trial at Canoe Ridge Estate and another site in the western hills of Washington.
“We tried to tackle it in a fairly scientific way,” Haun said. “Leafing and fruit thinning were pre-leafed by machine and then we followed up and went through by hand.”
Initially the mechanized acres yielded more tons of grapes per acre--since then the team made adjustments to bring the harvest in line with traditional manual acreage.
Haun said nothing was wildly different in Phenolic analysis for the mechanized acres—they did see slightly higher tannin content.
“Both of the treatments are very close in quality,” she said. “Nothing stuck out, saying this is something that really isn’t what we’re looking for. There is a slight perceptible difference but nothing where we would say, it’s off the table.”
Now, Chateau Ste. Michelle is expanding trial across vineyards and vintages.
“There’s quite a learning curve,” Haun said. “This vineyard has been working with this machinery for years. It does take a little bit of time, trial and error, and practice, to hit the targets that we’re looking for.”
There’s a labor trade-off with new help needed in the form of mechanics to maintain machines and operators for harvesters. In the end, Haun says, they’re not saving a ton of money.
But that’s not the point. Getting the vineyards maintained and harvested reliably is.
“For us the cost savings is less of a concern, it’s more covering the ground with the amount of people,” she said.