Efficient over-the-row tractors and labor-saving equipment to replace hand labor in the vineyard are finding a place in Washington State’s premium wine production. New technology was one of the topics showcased during the annual summer field day sponsored in August by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.
The grape tour visited several vineyards in Horse Heaven Hills that are using innovative equipment to produce high-quality wine while reducing labor costs. Horse Heaven Hills, a series of mostly south-facing sloping benches along the Columbia River, is more remote than other appellations in Washington State, making labor availability a constant issue.
The Andrews family has farmed in the Horse Heaven Hills area since World War II, first growing dryland wheat and later, when deep wells were developed, adding row crops and grapes. Robert Andrews, Sr., and his family were among the state’s early wine grape pioneers, planting their first wine grapes in 1980.
Recent changes in their newer vineyards include using a Global Positioning System unit to map and grid the blocks before and during planting. Additionally, GPS units are in tractors as they work down vineyard rows. Another change was row orientation. Rows are now oriented 30 to 33 degrees off due south to reduce rollover of the canopy from winds. “Our first plantings were oriented north-south and we had a lot of sunburn,” Rob Andrews said.
Mike Andrews demonstrated how they use the Clemens leafer to remove leaves. The machine is run on the east side of the vines and uses a fan to pull the leaves away from the canopy into the shredder, he explained, adding that a catch wire must first lift the shoots out of the way. If done when fruit is smallaround BB sizethere is very little damage. However, if the berries are soft, expect to see more damage, he said. They can cover about 30 acres per day by running 24 hours.
Mike added that he generally lifts the catch wire up around June 1 and starts leafing about June 10. Mechanical leaf removal has reduced their leafing costs by about 60 percent. One pass with the machine to remove leaves costs about $35 to $40 per acre compared to hand-labor costs of $120 to $150 per acre.
Although the Andrews family does have high-tier blocks that are leafed and harvested by hand, most of the acreage is mechanically harvested.
An over-the-row, twin rear, three-point Pellenc tractor was the focus at Double Canyon Vineyards, near Alderdale in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. Crimson Wine Group owns and operates a portfolio of wineries, including the 88-acre Double Canyon Vineyards, two California wineries, and Archery Summit Winery in Oregon. Only red varietals are planted at Double Canyon.
With more than 1,800 vines per acre at a spacing of four feet between vines and six feet between rows, Double Canyon is one of the highest density plantings in Washington, according to Will Beightol of Double Canyon. The tight spacing was chosen to increase competition between vines while allowing them to hang fewer pounds of fruit per vine, he explained.
Beightol noted that because a normal tractor would not fit in the narrow rows, they designed the vineyard for an over-the-row tractor and allowed additional room for turning at the end of the rows and landing area. “We have the only six-row Pellenc sprayer in the United States,” he said, adding that there are many attachments available for the over-the-row tractor, such as pruning, cultivating, and harvesting.
While each grower’s specific conditions are different, at Double Canyon the over-the-row tractor is cost effective as it does the job of two standard tractors but with less fuel and only one driver, Beightol said.
Jason Schlagel, viticulturist for Columbia Crest, is working to develop a completely mechanized vineyard from a 45-acre block of Cabernet Sauvignon and six acres of Chardonnay grapes. Though it’s taken a few years to work out the kinks, he said they are pleased with the wine quality and how the vines are looking.
In the Cabernet block, they target three to four tons per acre; in the Chardonnay block, five to six. They recently switched to a two-row tractor mount, allowing two rows to be worked at a time for even greater efficiency. All of the mechanized implements are from Oxbo International. He noted that mechanization requires movable wires and a vertical training system. “It’s not effective with sprawling canopies.”
Pruning in the winter is the first mechanized vineyard task of the year. A pre-pruner covers about 20 acres per day, and leaves behind one to four buds per spur. “The difference with the pre-pruner is that we don’t go back in with a hand crew except to make a few very quick cuts,” Schlagel said.
Next is a shoot thinner, used to knock off random shoots when shoot growth is four to six inches. Timing is critical for this step, he explained, because they want to knock the entire shoot off the cordon base and leave five to nine shoots per foot of cordon. In late May to early June, they use a mechanical trunk scrubber to remove suckers. Around full bloom stage, a leaf blower removes leaves.
The newest mechanized task, still in prototype, is a fruit thinner. A series of metal rods vibrates and turns, scuffing berries and clusters (which later desiccate and fall off). “You don’t want to bring winemakers into the vineyard for about a month until the berries have desiccated and fallen off,” Schlagel said jokingly. The difficulty with the fruit thinner under development by Oxbo is knowing where your tonnage is, he said. “It takes the fruit so long to drop off that you don’t know if you achieved your target tonnage.”
“The mechanized blocks never look real pretty, but they work,” he said, adding that fruit from mechanized vineyards seem to be uniform in quality. Not all sites are conducive to mechanization, but you can get good wine out of them, according to Schlagel. He noted that in Columbia Crest trials comparing wines made from mechanized and standard practices, winemakers couldn’t taste the difference.