Harvesting History: Machine vs. Hand-Picking
We are almost a month away from our Messina Hof Annual Harvest Festival and the grapes in our vineyard are getting riper by the day. This means harvesting season is just around the corner. But before you roll up your sleeves and take a step in our winemaker’s shoes, we believe a lesson in harvesting is in order.
Deciding When to Pick
The harvesting of grapes is no doubt one of the most crucial steps in the process of wine production, but no two harvest seasons are the same. The harvest window is determined by factors such as tannin level, sugar level and acid level and essentially, what style of wine is desired. The weather can also affect the harvesting window with threats of rain, frost, and long-term heat waves (aka a typical day in Texas). These conditions could potentially bring on various vine diseases that damage the grapes. Lastly, the decision to use mechanical harvesters vs. hand pickers may push the window forward or back. The harvest season in the Northern Hemisphere falls between August & October and February & April in the Southern Hemisphere.
Harvesting the Crop – by machine or hand?
How the crop is harvested requires careful planning. Choosing between machine harvesting or hand picking ultimately boils down to the location of the vineyard, budget, intended wine style, and winemaker preferences.
Mechanical harvesting of grapes has been one of the major changes in many vineyards in the last third of a century. This process was first introduced in the early 1960s and has been adopted in different wine regions for various labor, economic, and winemaking reasons. But how does it work? The mechanical grape harvester moves along vineyard rows and shakes ripe berries from their stems using long rubber rods. These grapes are then dropped onto a conveyor belt that brings the fruit to a holding bin. One of the benefits of harvesting by machine is the relatively low cost. An experienced human picker can harvest 1-2 tons of grapes in a day while a mechanical harvester is able to run 24 hours a day and pick 100-200 tons of grapes. However, this isn’t the gentlest of methods. Many grapes that are harvested this way can split which can start fermentation earlier than intended (which isn’t good). Occasionally, the mechanical harvester can even cause damage to the vines and trellis, hindering future growth.
This method requires a team of hand pickers to come to the vineyard during the early hours of the morning and pick for up to 6 hours. Our team comes in as early as 3:00AM during harvest season! The cooler temperatures of the morning and night-time help to preserve the delicate flavor, and aromas of the grapes. Winemakers also have better control of the fermentation process. When grapes are harvested in cooler temperatures, the energy required to keep them cool prior to pressing and fermenting is reduced. Also, during the heat of the day, the sugar levels in the grapes are stable, whereas in the morning, they are higher which results in a bolder flavor profile. As you can imagine, this is a much slower method of harvesting grapes, but the advantage of hand-picking is the ability to pick only the healthy bunches and keep the grapes intact and undamaged.
Want to get in on the experience? Try your hand at grape picking at our Moonlit or Daytime Harvests during our Annual Harvest Festival.