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Despite extra work, some growers prefer harvesting by hand

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Posted: Saturday, August 24, 2013 12:00 am

Dusty brown work boots step up to a vine, stomping on fallen leaves and grapevine canes. A worker shoves a gloved left hand deep into the lush foliage and gently grasps a full cluster of pale green grapes. His right hand, holding a small, hooked harvesting knife, aims for the cluster’s woody stem and severs it from the mother vine.

A quick release of the left hand drops the cluster into a yellow tub waiting at his feet. Three or four more clusters follow. The worker bends, lifts the yellow tub, and sets it back in the dirt three feet to his left. Then he dives once again into the vine.

The process takes about a minute, but it is repeated thousands of times by workers harvesting Chardonnay grapes for Michael~David Winery in a Woodbridge Road vineyard. While a vast majority of winegrapes are harvested by machines like the GH9000, built by Ag Industrial Manufacturing in Lodi, there are still a few instances when a delicate human hand can do the job better.

Emiliano Castanon, vineyard manager for Michael~David, oversaw a team of 22 men on Wednesday as they worked their way down the rows, dumping the full yellow tubs into large turquoise bins being pulled along by a tractor.

They worked from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., earning $68 dollars plus a share of the tonnage bonus.

The season runs for 40 or 50 days of dusty manual labor. Workers wear long sleeves, jeans and bandannas over their mouths to keep out the dust and debris.

Castanon’s best foreman is Tony Avalos, who has worked for the Phillips family for 35 years. He picked up his harvesting skills by watching others.

“You have to pick it up fast if you want a job,” he said, through the help of a translator.

The hardest part is keeping up a fast pace, and keeping the group at the same speed. As foreman, Avalos follows behind the pickers and grabs anything that falls to the ground or remains on the vine, as well as overseeing the crew.

The perks of hand harvesting are more gentle handling for the fruit and kinder treatment of the vines — plus there’s no major capital investment required.

To even consider using a machine, the vine must be strong enough to handle the rough treatment.

It takes three years for a vine to grow a crop, and three more years before the vine’s trunk is thick and able to withstand the shaking of a mechanical harvester.

Vines also have to be on a trellis system. There’s no machine yet that can pull fruit off a chaotic and gnarled head-trained vine, like so much of the old Zinfandel plantings around Lodi.

The downside of harvesting by hand all comes back to time. Workers must move so quickly that leaves and canes often fall in the bins, and the berries are still stuck in their clusters. All of that is MOG, or material other than grapes, and must be removed from the bins before most wineries will take the fruit. Grapes harvested in the morning sit in the bins until afternoon and grow warm before crushing. Winemakers then have to chill the juice before starting any blending or actual winemaking.

A machine will harvest as efficiently in the last hour of a shift as the first, but a hardworking human harvester slows down after five hours working in the sun.

“The worst part, number one, is the heat. Number two, if the vine is hard to pick. Sometimes the fruit is not easy to get to,” said Avalos.

But when the tractors run well, no one cuts his hand on a knife, and the crew picks the tonnage they had hoped for, it’s not such a bad gig, he said.

“When everything runs smoothly, that’s what I like best,” he said.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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