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Does Machine Harvesting Lower Wine Quality?

harvester.jpgAs some of you know, I recently spent some time on a press trip down in Australia. I'm still working through my notes from that trip, but one of the main points of interest for me were the vineyard practices of many of the producers, in particular with regards to harvesting. Many wineries, of various sizes, opted to do mechanical harvesting, rather than harvest by hand.

"Opted" may be slightly inaccurate, however, as the choice is less one of philosophy rather than necessity for most. While the United States, Europe, South Africa and other major wine regions have the benefit of rather large populations of people willing and able to take on the low-wage, high effort labor of managing and harvesting vineyards, Australia most certainly does not. While it is a country of immigrants, the population remains quite low, and the costs of managing vineyards by hand end up being quite high.

So many wineries do a lot of work by machine whenever they can, reserving their hand labor for things like the old bush vines that cannot be harvested by anything other than a stooping back and a sharp blade.

Machine harvesting has several implications to the nature of wine production. To harvest by machine, the grapes must be trained on vertical trellises (or other such regular arrangements), and larger blocks need to be harvested at once, regardless of some of the smaller variations in ripeness between vines, or even between clusters on the same vines. The grapes are moved about using centripetal force and conveyor belts and gravity, and more MOG (Material Other than Grapes) ends up in the bins that get transported to the winery.

The question is, however, what impact do these implications have on the final wine? Interestingly, Caymus, one of Napa's top brands, recently admitted to machine harvesting the grapes that end up in their 96-point-rated 2007 Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, and suggested that such practices not only can yield high quality wines, but can also dramatically lower costs, something that pretty much every winery in California is interested in these days.

My own recent experience in Australia (and my experience last fall in Chile) makes that a little hard for me to believe. I saw a direct correlation in both places between the wines that I thought were extremely high quality and the more painstaking and expensive processes of hand harvesting. Not only that, but in Australia, certain wineries whose portfolios were made up of some wines that were hand harvested and others that were not, also seemed to demonstrate that the hand harvested wines were better.

Of course, the answer to this question is not black and white. There are plenty of lousy wines made in California that are harvested by hand, for instance. But I will admit to a deep suspicion of machine harvested wine, especially those that aspire to the upper end of the quality and price spectrum.

Having said that, I've tasted the 2007 Caymus Special Selection, and it is, indeed, a spectacular wine. Theoretically, it might be the best machine harvested wine in the world (it should be noted that Caymus also employs a number of hand-based vineyard practices as well).

What do you think? Can big tractors pick fruit as well as skilled laborers?

Read the full story.

Comments (28)

Anonymous wrote:
05.13.10 at 12:22 AM

I think machine harvested grape can make very good wine if processed quickly and given good winemaking. I understand that a lot of good wine in france is machine harvested. The issue is complicated because a lot of machine harvested fruit gets industrial treatment at other stages eg machine pruning, very large tanks etc. Hand picking is definitely better but the method of harvesting is only one factor that influences quality, there are so many other factors that harvesting may only be a minor factor.

Greg wrote:
05.13.10 at 12:24 AM

Sorry, that last comment was mine, I forgot to fill in my details,


05.13.10 at 6:51 AM

Very good article. I never thought about that.

Jon Bjork wrote:
05.13.10 at 7:43 AM

The technology used in mechanical harvesters has been constantly improving. For example, fans are doing a much better job removing leaves. There are also smaller harvesters, such as the Pulleo (sp?) that could essentially crush in the field. I think the ideal situation would be to make a pass before harvesting to remove undesirable clusters to the ground, then run a Pulleo at night, delivering cold, crushed must directly to small tanks for cold soak. But I agree that if a particular vineyard ripens unevenly, it would probably necessitate hand-harvesting.

Sasha wrote:
05.13.10 at 8:01 AM

Interesting. Seems like there are many factors at play. Is it the machine harvesting itself? The vine training methods required? How much can hard work at a sorting table make up for NGM issues/uneven ripening? Did you see the same quality differential across all varieties and styles of wine?

05.13.10 at 9:13 AM

Great topic, thanks for the post.

And yes, there is a great debate about mechanical v. hand harvesting. True some mechanical harvesters do allow more "MOG" (material other than grapes) in the pick, which eventually leads to off flavors in the final product. Though there have been amazing strides in technology over the years which allow certain machines to pick fruit than can equally as good as harvested by hand. In fact there is an article in the new issue of Wines and Vines that discusses this new era of machine.

Pellenc makes a mechanical harvester which only picks the ripe fruit, leaving behind dessicated berries, under ripe berries, as well as stems on the vine. This is then run over an on board sorting table to remove any other extraneous material leaving virtually pristine fruit in the gondola. Pretty amazing stuff indeed.

And yes, as Greg noted no matter how nice the pick is...good wine making is crucial to a fine product in the bottle.


Philip Woodrow
Hahn Family Wines

Mark Cochard wrote:
05.13.10 at 9:51 AM

Always a controversial subject. One thing to keep in mind is that many locations especailly with in the EU at the QWPSR level machnine harevsting is not performed. The laws of the local AOC, DO, DOC, etc dictating certain vine densities, trellising and pruning techniques preclude the ability to machine harvest as well as an outright ban on machine harvesting. So labor costs and subsequest wine costs are much higher for potentially same level of quailty from machine harvested new world wines.

Brenden wrote:
05.13.10 at 4:21 PM

I can't say I know too much about the subject, but doesn't machine harvesting have the added benefit of being able to work at night (when hand harvesters, presumably, are sleeping or can't see)? Thus there is less damage to the grapes and less risk of fermenting too quickly.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
05.13.10 at 5:09 PM


Pretty much all the wineries I know have their workers harvesting at night when they need them to. A 3:00 or 4:00 AM call isn't unheard of so that grapes can be in the crusher before it gets to hot.


D.R. wrote:
05.13.10 at 6:49 PM

There are plenty of domestic wineries who use mechanical harvesters and other methods which are not seen as popular, such as picking high/ watering back, de-alching, and extensive filtering to name a few. It does not surprise me that Caymus uses machine harvesters what surprise me is that they admit it. Being in the industry for sometime I cannot even explain to an outsider the stuff which goes down. Ever been in the valley during harvest and notice that trucks labeled Lodi, Susiun, and Montery are brimmed with fruit heading into the valley? Sure AVA laws allow up to 15% of out of AVA fruit but us in the industry know that bigger wineries cut their bottom end by adding more. I just wish that wineries would get off of their high horses with their "low-yield, stressed vine, unique terrior" kick and be more transparent.

Brett wrote:
05.13.10 at 11:29 PM

Alder, I read this article earlier and I was amused. Mechanized pickers clearly look out of place in a vineyard. I wonder how they would manage the terrain in the Sta. Rita Hills? California grapegrowers are looking for ways to cut cost without cutting quality. This may be worth trying out. I'm sure you would have to be a fairly large producer for the savings to cover the aquisition cost soon enough. Caymus should be applauded for the effort and the transparency.

John wrote:
05.14.10 at 7:51 AM

It isn't even a close comparison. Machines hammer, dislodge, and do a semi-crushing before it falls from the vine. Hand-picked is far superior, especially when you pay your workers by the hour vs. by the ton!

Chris Bryant wrote:
05.14.10 at 8:25 AM

The more advanced machines have made great improvements compared to the earlier versions and I think that it is pretentious to write off machine harvested grapes. I have no doubt that many who would take up that position have probably waxed lyrical about wines in the past without knowing that they were machine harvested. Most of the benefits as well as the downsides have been covered above. One thing to consider though, is that often the vineyards that have been machine harvested in the past have been those of lesser quality, that the viticulturalists did not have licence to use expensive labour to harvest. So the chances are that this fruit would have produced wine of a lesser quality irrespective.

Jon Bjork wrote:
05.14.10 at 9:25 AM

Here's what gets me about this subject: Unless the winemaking style is whole cluster, all grapes, whether hand or machine harvested, are heading for a destemmer/crusher. That MACHINE spins the grapes off the stems using much the same principle as the mechanical harvester. Then rollers in the machine squish a certain percentage of the grapes before most wineries auger and pump them into a tank. There is no way I'm going to buy into that process being gentle. So if that process can occur at 4am out in the vineyard at the coldest time of the new day, then gravity dump the bins into the top of fermentors (or simply bin-ferment), who could argue with that for the ultimate in high-end winemaking?

MTO wrote:
05.14.10 at 1:03 PM

Interesting article---especially about the trellising. Personally, I think if a) I valued the point system and b) I actually enjoyed drinking Caymus SS, I would be more impressed about the 'quality' quotient of the machine-harvested product. Call me a romantic, but there's something about knowing a little sunburn, sweat and tears probably made it into your wine via the back-breaking work and fervent love of the people who made this for your enjoyment.

Ron Saikowski wrote:
05.14.10 at 6:23 PM

While interning at at a winery in Sonoma, I experienced first hand the huge difference in the quality of incoming grape gondola bins of hand harvested vs. machine picked. My experience was the machine harvested was closer to ambient temperature than the hand-harvested grapes. This meant than wild bacteria and yeasts were already working hard with some bins of hand-harvested grapes at 15 degrees F higher than ambient temperature. The amount of MOG in machine-harvested grapes was lower than hand-harvested grapes. However, the machine-harvested grape bins had much more free juice than hand-harvested grapes. However, the costs of hand-harvesting was more than five times that of machine-harvested grapes. Obviously, value wines are probably machine harvested which allows lower wine costs. One major item about trellising wines for machines which was omitted is that the end posts must be smaller for the machine picking to occur to the end of the row. Lastly machine picking can only be done on flat lands. Steep slopes require hand picking!

Adam LaPierre wrote:
05.15.10 at 10:42 AM

I think machine harvesting could have a lower impact on quality for red wines v. white, as skin contact is an element of red winemaking. If picking is done early at cold temps, you are essentially just initiating a cold soak, which can facilitate extraction. If MOG is kept low due to gentler machines, my understanding is that its impact would be negligible.

For whites however, you are encouraging enzymatic oxidation which would surely take place before the fruit could reach the pressing deck. The former winemaker at Roederer Estate said this could take place within 10-15 minutes of crushing the berries. Chemical oxidation and extraction of phenolics would follow depending on the lag time from picking to processing. This is not to say it is better or worse, as there are commonly two schools of thought with regards to white winemaking- the "green juice" (reductive) and "brown juice" (oxidative) camps. Great wines could be found in either place.

As Ron points out, economics is also a deciding factor. If hand picking can make better wine, does the winery have the ability to also maximize quality throughout the rest of the winemaking process to produce a finished product that can command more money thus justifying the expense? Caymus unquestionably does, but others may not?

Jon Bjork wrote:
05.16.10 at 7:57 AM

Excellent point, Adam. I agree that whites are a challenge for machine harvesting and whole cluster is pretty much out of the question.

rs wrote:
05.16.10 at 5:10 PM

I know nothing about harvesting, but I had a chance to taste the machine-harvested 07 Caymus SS yesterday. If that's what happens "bring it on".

chris robinson wrote:
05.16.10 at 10:39 PM

Alder, the vineyards that have budgets for hand picked wines are those that charge a premium and this is reflected in everything they do from berry selection to fermentation processes, to barrels, to final blending. The real quality factors are those not harvesting techniques. The real issue is - did you see any difference within price points in terms of quality between harvested and hand picked? We used mechanical in the past two seasons and frankly we cannot see any difference except about a 60% saving in harvest costs.

Anthony wrote:
05.17.10 at 4:05 AM

Sorry I am always late to these conversations as I usually only get the news in the weekly digest. Knowing Tuscany the best (since I live here) I don't think I have ever seen a machine harvester at any winery I have visited - but I think it has as much to do with the terrain as anything else. You pretty much need large, flat fields to use this type of machinery, no?

I did see a lot of this type of machinery in the Languedoc a couple of summers ago, where the vineyards were more in fields and not tucked up and down the sides of hill as is the case in most of Tuscany.

Personally I could see machine "picked" wine being of high quality - as long as the grapes are sorted by hand at some point before de-stemming or crushing. At the end of the day, the fruit is really what makes the difference though (unless the winemaker messes it all up) - and you would have to think (or want to know) that the $100 bottle was indeed a hand made process the whole way... at least I would anyway.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
05.17.10 at 9:43 AM


Yes, your point is well taken, and I certainly did see differences in both Australia and Chile between, say two $35-45 wines, one machine harvested, the other hand harvested. Hardly a scientific comparison, of course, and its reasonable to suggest that machine harvesting is not causing lower quality wines, it could just be correlated with it. Which is to say that people who choose not to machine harvest also choose to do other things that improve the quality of the wine. No way of knowing for sure.

Karl Laczko wrote:
05.17.10 at 10:21 AM

I have been on a Pellenc “Activ” 4360 harvester in the Cotes du Ventoux as it picked its way through a vineyard. The machine was a marvel of technology, and the sorting "shaker" racks did a great job at removing leaves, stalks etc. so that it was mostly fruit in the panniers - but look closely and there was a fair few little white snails common to the region, plus a few grasshoppers, spiders etc. The amount of MOG didn't shock me that much - I was expecting it - but it is bound to add some additional flavouring depending on the maceration/fermentation techniques. Whether this will make a positive or negative difference is another matter; the Chateau I was at made some pretty good entry wines from the mechanically picked grapes.

Anthony wrote:
05.17.10 at 10:35 AM

But Karl - did this machine actually crush too? Didn't the grapes end up somewhere to be sorted pre-crush? Picking with a machine is one thing- but crushing those grapes with out any other human contact... that can't make $100 bottle of wine, can it?

Mark Cocahrd wrote:
05.20.10 at 6:48 AM

Very timely article from Wines and Vines in addition to the story that started this blog post.
http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=features&content=73703&ftitle=The Year of the Harvester?

Bob wrote:
05.21.10 at 5:14 PM

According to my son who has worked two hand-picked harvests in Napa and two machine harvests down under, NO.

NO meaning the grapes coming in don't look as good. Of course, this is before whatever the wine maker does later to "improve" the product.

ryan wrote:
05.24.10 at 7:48 AM

Here in Europe there are plenty of wineries who off the record talk of using mechanical harvesters. Many are VERY HIGH END, and argue that it allows them to get their grapes in quicker, and avoid issues with heat, among others.
Here in Spain I can name 5-10 wineries selling premium wines, with big "miller points" who use mechanical harvesters for part of their production.

Jenna A wrote:
05.24.10 at 7:43 PM

Exactly, Bob. Grapes and overall the wine boxes and cases which usually come in a variety of doggy type bags never looks the best. Whether they treat them is a different question, but certainly nothing I would heavily consider. :\

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