At year’s end, when costs of all the grapevine tasks are added up, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’s Mike Means calculates that the company saves more than $750 per acre in labor costs by using machines for pruning, shoot thinning, leaf removal, sucker control, and harvest.

Means noted that his estimated costs (“Labor cost comparisons per acre”) do not include cost of the equipment, but represent the labor to operate the machines.

Ste. Michelle’s mechanized vineyards need no crop load adjustments or color thinning, Means said. “Our philosophy has been to open up canopies through mechanical shoot thinning and leafing so that nothing further is needed to ripen the crop.”

He added that they’ve been very successful in hitting their yield targets. For Riesling and Gewurztraminer, target yields are five to six tons per acre, and for Cabernet Sauvignon, the target is in the six-ton range.

Their spray program did require fine-tuning after the switch to mechanization to ensure they had the necessary coverage and penetration, he noted. “We are dealing with a much denser canopy, so we had to slow our speed down.”

Means says that Ste. Michelle is expanding its use of mechanization because it makes economic sense. “But other growers must consider where their grapes are going and what wine tiers are targeted. Fruit from our mechanized vineyards is not going into our high-tier wines but to the low- to mid-tiers. But the winemakers using the fruit have been very pleased with what we’ve been delivering.”

Labor cost comparisons per acre
Tasks Mechanized Tradititonal
Pruning $6 – 8 $90 – 125
Shoot thinning $5 – 7 $100 – 225
Sucker control $5 – 7 $52 – 72
Leafing $10 $100 – 150
Harvest $35 – 500 $1,000 – 1,200*
* Based on a yield of 5 to 6 tons per acre.
SOURCE:  Ste. Michelle Wine Estates