A US labour shortage looms

Thursday, 18. May 2017 - 16:45
In California and the Pacific Northwest, the grape vines began waking up in April. Buds burst open and the yearly cycle of vineyard work shifted into high gear, with skilled workers tying the young buds for support, positioning shoots for optimal growth, and other tasks. For several years now, those skilled workers have been hard to find, but this year it seemed especially hard to get hands on the vines, according to many reports.
This is leading to increased labour costs as growers compete for workers, which raises the possibility of an increase in domestic wine prices for the US consumer, as well as an emerging trend toward vineyard mechanisation.
Rob Harris, the director of vineyard operations for Price Family Vineyards and Estates in Sonoma, said, “There is a shortage not just of good vineyard labour, but any vineyard labour.” The Price portfolio, formerly called Classic Wines LLC, includes 370 acres of premium vineyards, chiefly in Sonoma County.
Harris, who looks after the Price operation from vine to wine, said, “Obviously, as an industry, we have long been dependent on a mostly migrant workforce. And without getting lost in politics, it is clearly more difficult, more expensive, and more dangerous than it has been ever before for folks to (legally or illegally) enter that workforce.”
Harris was referring to workers from Mexico who for decades have been virtually the only agricultural workers on the West Coast – or across the US, for that matter.
Driving up costs
The actual number of ‘undocumented’ Mexican immigrants – those who have no legal right to be in the US – started falling long before President Trump’s talk of building a wall and other immigration crackdowns. According to research from the Pew Institute, there was a peak of 6.9m unauthorized immigrants from Mexico in 2007, a decade ago. That number fell to 5.8m by 2015 and is still declining. 
There are several reasons for the decline, with the threat of deportation one. Perhaps the most important, however, is the booming economy in Mexico. When there are jobs at home, why risk the dangerous journey north to find work? Also, the crackdown on undocumented immigrants has been going on since 2008. According to some sources, one being Global Nation, produced by Public Radio International, there are now more undocumented Mexicans leaving the US than entering. Turns out the border is a two-way street.
The shortage of labour is, of course, driving up the cost of doing business for vineyard owners. Farm labour pay in California has risen dramatically since 1990, when the annual average pay was $22,622.00. Today it is about $30,000.00 a year, which is only about half the overall average pay in California.
However, farm workers are also starting to get some of the benefits normally claimed by white-collar workers, such as paid vacation. Silverado Farming Company, a Napa farm labour-supply company, offers retirement plans, health insurance, subsidized housing, and free English classes. These increased labour costs will most likely, sooner or later, contribute to an increase in consumer wine prices.
“Ultimately, it is going to drive wine prices higher,” said Stuart Spencer, program manager for the Lodi Winegrape Commission. “At first, the smaller premium producers will need to raise wine prices to compensate for the rising grape prices, but over time the rising cost of labour will affect all wine prices.” It is also driving the move to mechanisation. “Many growers are looking toward mechanisation as a way to reduce labour needs. They are exploring machine-pruning and many other ways to reduce labour.” “Here in Lodi,” he added, “we are seeing interest from many coastal brands looking to control the cost of their grape supply by blending in Lodi fruit, which offers an outstanding quality-to-value relationship that is driving interest in the region’s grapes and wines.”
Aaron Lange, who is in charge of vineyard operations for LangeTwins winery in Lodi, confirmed that the labour shortage has led to an increase in costs. “It is hard to say exactly what impact that will have on wine prices,” Lange said. He pointed out that vineyard labour costs in Lodi were not as high as in the premium coastal areas, partly due to the greater level of mechanisation in Lodi. “In general terms, hand-harvesting is about three times as expensive as mechanical harvesting,” he said.
Lodi has clearly embraced mechanisation in the vineyards, according to Spencer, not just machine-picking. “Growers are also exploring machine-pruning, suckering and many other ways to reduce labour.”
Rob Harris said there is still a reluctance to accept mechanisation in the coastal grape-growing regions but he does see a “big wave of mechanisation” becoming absolutely necessary. “Those who stand adamantly opposed to it will be forced into higher prices for the fruit and ultimately the wine. The market correction hasn’t happened yet, but I think it will soon.”
New realities
Hourglass Winery is a super-premium Napa winery with bottle prices topping well over $100.00. Jeff Smith, one of the winery founders, said that he had no experience with mechanical harvesting at Hourglass. He had, however, talked with his winemaker about it. “He was so frustrated scheduling pick dates last harvest that he brought up the idea of mechanically harvesting,” he said. “The topic was broached out of frustration, but it highlights that some of our best winemakers are pondering it. At our level, I don’t think it’s appropriate yet, but with advances in technology, over time, who knows? As labour costs go up, more efforts will be put into mechanical solutions.”
The bottle price for Hourglass, like premium wineries all over the world, is based, at least in part, on perceived quality. This includes the image of hand-harvested grapes –smiling pickers carefully cuddling bunches of grapes in their hands. That is a glossy if unrealistic picture of the ‘farm to table’ concept that gives wine consumers a pretty but perhaps inaccurate picture of how the wine gets in their glass.
Is there any reality behind that image? That is, does machine-harvesting and vineyard mechanisation in general have a negative impact on wine quality?
Ongoing research by the Washington Wine Commission is attempting to answer that question. Mechanical harvesters were introduced in Washington as early as the 1960s. They now pick over 80% of the state’s vineyards, saving growers about $20m annually, according to a report in the Good Fruit Grower. Hand-harvesting in Washington costs between $500.00 and $1,000.00 per acre, depending on crop load and variety, compared to $200.00 to $400.00 for machine-harvesting.
The Washington project, which is not yet complete, is also looking closely at machine-pruning, another aspect of vineyard care where there is a shortage of skilled workers. Jim Harbertson, associate professor of oenology at Washington State University, is leading the experiment, which is being conducted on Syrah vines. “Previous studies have looked at the impact of mechanisation on yield and fruit quality, and measured basic fruit-ripening parameters, but few have looked at the impact on wine,” he said. Harbertson said it was essential to find if mechanisation, such as harvesting or pruning, had an adverse impact on wine quality.
It could be that the answer is ‘yes and no’. Pam Starr is the co-owner and winemaker at Crocker & Starr Vineyards in Napa. She has a reputation as a terroir-driven winemaker. On the question of mechanisation and wine quality, her approach appeared to be pragmatic. “I am not sure how you separate wine quality and viticulture with regard to mechanical harvesting and ultra-premium wines.
However, as an example, I can say that wine quality is affected if a winemaker who has 100 acres of Chardonnay decides that those 100 acres are ready to harvest in a short window of time and very few bodies to accomplish the task. What is more important – missing the optimal ripeness window versus changing how the wine is produced with mechanically harvested fruit?”
Rob Harris of Price Family Vineyards, who has had experience with mechanical harvesting – although he is not currently involved in any machine-picking – said, “Some folks are still pretty ardent that any machine-harvest inherently takes away from the quality. They are stuck with decades-old visions of how older machines work and can’t wrap their brain around the improvements that have been made.”
Harris sees changes coming, however. “More and more folks are warming up to the possibility that there is going to be a need, economic or logistical, to move in the direction of mechanical harvest,” he said. “My personal thoughts are if a vineyard is designed right, built right, and farmed right, most things could be machine-harvested without a large detriment to quality.”
In California’s Central Valley there are robots planting lettuce seedlings and harvesting tomatoes and other crops. Other robots are driving cars in San Francisco. It is hardly a stretch to imagine that in the very near future, robots will carefully and tenderly harvest those Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that go into those $100.00-plus bottles of wine. 
Larry Walker
This article first appeared in Issue 2, 2017 of Meininger's Wine Business International.