“Everybody in this room knows that labor is a big issue for us,” said Keith Striegler, grower outreach specialist at E. & J. Gallo Winery, addressing a crowd of wine grape industry insiders at a conference in Sacramento.
Striegler said Gallo is investigating mechanization in response to that issue, and trying to improve quality in doing so.
“The reality is it’s not going to get any better, it’s going to be a continued problem we’re going to face,” he said. “Consequently there are also changes in how vineyards look.”
That doesn’t happen overnight, Striegler said. To make a change in the wine industry, he said, you start in the vineyard, then go to the winery, and you have to have buy-in from winemakers.
“We’re not just talking about mechanical harvesting, we’re talking about pruning, shoot-thinning,” Striegler said. “It cuts across everything that we’re doing.”
The chart above from an earlier presentation by Striegler shows the cost of manual labor dominates grapegrower balance sheets.
“There’s a tremendous impetus to us to mechanize as much as we can,” he said. “But we have to have buy-in from winemakers and consumers to make it all work.”
It’s not just for large vineyard operations, he said.
Cooperatives of growers can buy the machine, he said.
“There’s a lot of ways for a small grower to get into the game,” he told growers.
Striegler said box pruning is easier done by setting up a new plot than it is by retrofitting a vineyard.
The bottom line? Striegler said the issue is an existential one for the industry.
“At some point, we’re not going to be able to go over the number of acres that everybody has without mechanization,” he said. “At some point, it will be a question of if you can farm or not.”