How Are California’s Grapes Harvested

California is well-known for its wine and the excitement that comes along with harvest season. Vineyards all have their own opinions on growing the best grapes, achieving the best flavor and harvesting grapes for wine in California. Wine can be a costly yet lucrative industry, so much thought goes into caring for the vines. Growing wine grapes is a year-round process, but when is the right time to harvest and which picking method is best?

The Optimal Time to Harvest

The optimal time to harvest depends on various factors, including the type of grape, the flavor profile desired and what the specific vineyard decides. Vineyards across the U.S. harvest grapes at different times, but when are California grapes harvested? Typically wine harvest begins in August and runs through October. The warm autumn months provide weather that is just right for the harvesting of grapes. As August comes around, grapes begin to ripen, undergoing a process known as veraison. The fruit starts to appear more like how we imagine grapes. Green grapes turn to gold and even red, while previously red grapes turn to a deep purple color. While the new colors are the most obvious change, grapes also increase in size and become softer.

The style of wine made from the grapes also affects the picking process. Sparkling wines require grapes with higher acidity that are picked in early August. Grapes for white wines are the next to be selected. Grapes for red wines are the last to be chosen as they take longer to mature. The picking process for these grapes begins in October or even early November.

Other factors that affect harvest are worker availability and weather conditions. Workers are an essential part of the harvest as the grape harvest season in California can last for a few months, and some vineyards will run a 24-hour operation to ensure they pick the ripest fruit. Vineyards are also at the mercy of the weather. An approaching storm can expedite or delay harvest, while heat waves may force a vineyard to harvest early to get the fruit before they dry out.

Picking by Hand

Hand-picking is the traditional method for harvesting wine grapes. In this process, workers go through the rows of a vineyard, picking grapes bunch by bunch. Hand-picking is a long process that often requires skilled pickers to be selective. They cut grapes off the vine with knives or sharp clippers and drop them into containers located throughout the rows of vines. Hand harvesting grapes can often produce better results. Skilled workers can carefully snip off bunches and lay them in containers. Selecting the best bunches and avoiding sunburn or vine rot is something only a human can do. Reducing Material Other than Grapes or MOG is another reason for choosing to pick by hand. The added material that falls into picking containers can increase the complexity of wine production.

A primary component of choosing to hand-pick is care. Many vineyards select this method because they care for their product and want to produce the best result. The amount of care that goes into wine production depends on several factors. Pickers' expertise and motivation can influence the quality of grapes they pick. It is also a valid option if the temperature is suitable for workers to be among the vine rows. Vineyards often chose hand-picking where quality supersedes quantity.

Machine Harvesting

Machine harvesting is the alternative method to picking by hand. Machine picking was introduced in the 1960s and refers to a machine that travels through vineyards over the rows while shaking the fruit off. Machine picking has taken the wine industry to new heights and is one of the main grape harvesting tools that makes affordable and delicious wine accessible. When vineyards use grape harvesting machines, grapes can go from being picked to being chilled much more quickly than if they were hand-picked. Using machines is also beneficial for night harvesting. Without machines, hand-picking operations would use generators and standing lights to disperse light over a given area. Machines allow workers to work longer and later into the night without feeling the exhaustion they would feel if they walked through rows of vines.

Benefits of Machine Harvesting

Machine harvesting has slowly become more popular in the wine industry. Previously, machine picking was used by extensive commercial vineyards, and the grapes picked were of lesser quality. As the technology of these machines improved, the use has broadened to even boutique vineyards. Quality was the main detractor from using machines since they shook the vines, damaging the vines and crushing the grapes.

New technology allows multiple steps in the harvesting process to be combined into one smooth action. Machines can be calibrated to pick only ripe fruit instead of stripping vines of all the fruit they hold. New harvesters can also include optical sensors for grape selection and use forced air to sort them, discarding any MOG or damaged fruit. Some harvesters even feature destemming, reducing the time it takes for grapes to reach the following stages in the process and keeping the grapes as fresh and intact as possible.

Hand-Picking vs. Machine Picking

The debate of whether to hand pick to use machines is ongoing, and some vineyards swear by one method over the other. Many vineyards use both ways of picking. Hand-picking is typically done when machines are dangerous to operate, often due to rough terrain or steep hillsides. Some vineyards have their vines placed close together, and using a machine would damage the vines or pick grapes ineffectively.

Grape harvesting equipment is rapidly improving with new technology and can help use workers effectively. Machines are more cost-effective and keep a vineyard on schedule. Due to the delicate nature of wine grapes, they must be picked when they are the ripest. Human workers can move slowly, causing the process to take much longer. Harvesting machines have saved vineyards’ yield from impending storms and the shortage of employees.

Getting Ready for the Next Season

A rush of excitement and anticipation accompanies harvest season. How well a vineyard prepares for the harvest can often determine the result of that harvest. Taking notes on the previous season’s success and downfalls will help with next year’s yield. Making sure any existing equipment works or looking for new equipment can ultimately affect future efficiency. Vines that produce beautiful fruit are the product of science and machinery. Equipment like spreaders is essential for vine growth and the overall health of the fruit. Spreading in vineyards can be difficult with tight spacing, so ensure you choose a suitable spreader for the job.

Choose Pequea for Your Vineyard and Orchard Needs

At Pequea, we're more than just an agricultural machinery manufacturer. We provide parts, service and support for your equipment. Our limited warranties give you the confidence you need to purchase new equipment, and you can contact our service department if you ever have a problem.

The Pequea name means quality. To learn more about Pequea’s vineyard and orchard spreader equipment, contact a dealer near you today!