Oct 7, 2021 - Technology

Labor shortage pushes winemakers to automation

Image of a vintner in his vineyard with a grape-picking robot.
Brad Goehring, operator of Goehring Vineyards in Lodi, California, uses robots to pick his grapes. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A shortage of agriculture workers is forcing winemakers in the U.S. and Europe to turn to robots for their autumn grape harvest, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Why it matters: Pandemic-related travel restrictions have cut down on the availability of migrant workers, exacerbating an existing labor shortage in viticulture.

  • While crops like soybeans and corn are routinely harvested by machine, winemakers have been slower to make the switch for fear of damaging the grapes.
  • In some wine-making regions of France, like Champagne, there are bans on machine harvesting in favor of traditional handpicking.

Yes, but: New research at UC Davis shows that not only can vineyards safely replace manual laborers by switching to machinery, they can also make better-tasting wine.

  • “The new system entails different trellises so the vine is higher up off the ground, so it has better flavor, it has better color, which winemakers desire,” one researcher told CBS Sacramento.

What's happening: French manufacturer Pellenc told the Journal that demand for automated grape harvesters, which had been going up 5% to 10% a year, shot up about 20% this year.

  • The machines can be expensive — about $100,000 or more — but growers can recoup the cost over several seasons.

The bottom line: Labor shortages everywhere — including vineyards — are pushing producers toward automation.

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