The winegrape industry is well suited to mechanized production

Jul 25, 2019

A major expense in producing winegrapes is labor. Two UC Cooperative Extension experts appeared on the Jefferson Exchange radio program to explain how mechanization of pruning, leaf removal and shoot thinning, combined with mechanized harvesting widely implemented decades ago, will dramatically reduce the need for labor in California winegrape production.

"The minimum wage is going to increase to $15 per hour in 2022," said George Zhuang, viticulture advisor with UCCE Fresno County. Besides, it is getting more challenging for growers to find enough workers due to labor shortages and higher wages in other fields, such as construction.

The machinery for mechanized vineyards requires an investment of about $100,000, said Kaan Kurtural, UCCE viticulture specialist. At that cost, growers begin to break even after a year.

The biggest obstacle to mechanization is the way winegrape vineyards have traditionally been trellised. The cross arms get in the way of machines as they go through the vineyards. In a recent research project by Zhuang and Kurtural, the scientists converted a traditional system to single high wire and managed it with mechanical equipment.

"It was more profitable ... with the same, if not better, quality and value at the farm gate," Kurtural said. "The writing is on the wall for growers to adapt to this as quickly as possible."

Host Geoffrey Riley asked whether the labor savings will result in cheaper wine. Kurtural laughed. 

"No," he said. "Wine prices are set by market demand. I don't think wine is an expensive beverage."

By Jeannette E. Warnert
Author - Communications Specialist