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US (CA): Mechanical grape harvester a quicker picker

Roaring  up and down the rows of ripe pinot grigio grapes, the mechanical picker is a model of efficiency on a bright harvest day.

Slim rods grip the vines and shake vigorously, sending grapes tumbling into the machine's maw. Conveyor belts carry the grapes up to fans which blow out leaves and other debris before a metal arm shoots the grapes into a large bin trailing alongside.

The machine moves on, leaving denuded clusters quivering in its wake.

Once, all California grapes destined for wine were hand-picked. But during the last 30 years, more acres have gone to machines as the size of the crop has grown and the technology behind mechanical harvesters has improved.

"You can do a better job and you don't have to use a lot of people," says Rodrigo Sandoval, a vineyard manager for Bronco Wine Co. who supervised the phalanx of machines picking pinot grigio in California's Central Valley as the 2009 harvest got into full swing.

How fast can a mechanical harvester pick? Very.

Bronco co-founder Fred Franzia estimates five people working with mechanical harvesters can do the work of about 100 people picking by hand.

It would take 5,000 people to bring in Bronco's large harvest — they produce a number of brands, including Charles Shaw, known as Two Buck Chuck for its $1.99 price in California — something that's just not practical.

"We couldn't physically manage a work force that large in the amount of time needed to get the ripe grapes into the winery," he said.


Publication date: 9/28/2009


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