Hand-picking vs. Machine-picking–Harvest 2015 Update

September 30, 2015–  We are experiencing a pause in our grape harvest due to a few rainy days, so are stopping to reflect on the progress of harvest 2015 to date.  September saw beautiful, warm and sunny days with nary a drop of rain.  We harvested Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay from our estate vineyard and all are happily fermenting in the cellar.  Quality and ripeness levels on all three varieties was above average and we anticipate excellent 2015 wines.

A common question asked by visitors is our method of harvest–“Do you hand-pick all of your grapes?”  They are often surprised to hear that machine-harvesting is common the Finger Lakes, and becoming the norm as seasonal labor becomes harder to find.  While traditional and lower-impact, hand-harvesting is not necessarily better for wine quality than machine-harvesting.  We used both methods last week to harvest Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay, and here is a comparison of the two methods:

Machine-picked Gewurztraminer

Our neighbors at Doyle Vineyard Management have a mechanical harvester so we sometimes hire them to pick our grapes.  To make Gewurztraminer wine, an over-night soaking of the juice on its skins is required.  This makes machine-harvesting beneficial because the machine works by tearing the berries off of the stems, releasing the juice.  The machine automatically de-stems the grapes, eliminating a step in the winemaking process.  Machine-harvesting is also quicker than hand-harvesting, allowing the grapes to get into the cool wine cellar before any of their delicate aromas dissipate.  It took three Doyle Vineyard Management workers 45 min. to harvest our one acre of Gewurztraminer vines.  Add in about 3 hours of pre-harvest thinning to remove damaged fruit (performed by us) and you get about 5 hours of total labor to harvest one acre.  The yield was 2.5 tons.



Ripe Gewurztraminer grapes awaiting harvest.


Gewurztraminer vines after machine-harvesting show the stems still attached. Harvesters gently shake and rub the vines so that ripe berries fall off.


A bin filled with Gewurztraminer berries after harvest.


The harvester (left) straddles the vine while a second tractor pulling a bin receives the grapes.


















Hand-picked Chardonnay

After removing 5.5 rows of diseased Chardonnay vines earlier this year, we have only 6 rows of Chardonnay in production in 2015 (about 0.75 acres).   We decided to hand-pick this fruit with our own labor due to the small quantity.  Three of us began picking at 7am and two others joined later in the morning.  We didn’t finish picking until just before 5pm, not even taking a break for lunch!  (Very few photos were taken because we were too busy picking.)  We were able to perform on-the-spot thinning of damaged fruit (i.e. sorting) as we picked.  Total man hours for this harvesting day was 43 hours.  The yield was about 2.5 tons (virtually identical to Gewurztraminer).  While it took a lot longer than the machine-picking, we avoided the fuel use of the harvester so the Chardonnay has a smaller carbon footprint (although the two pickers that drove to the winery from Ithaca in their cars probably negated that advantage).



Hand-picked Chardonnay (stems still attached) being loaded into the trailer to be taken to the winery.


Small picking lugs of Chardonnay were emptied into larger bins to be more easily transported to the pressing facility.

We still have three varieties to pick this year– Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.  We plan to hand-harvest all of the reds and some of the Riesling.  We will machine-harvest some of the Riesling.  More photos and analysis to come!  Follow us on Facebook and Instagram for instant updates of Harvest 2015.