The question of using mechanical harvesting versus traditional hand picking is a source of contention in the wine industry. Mechanical harvesting of grapes has been one of the major changes in many vineyards in the last third of a century, and it’s been adopted in different places for various economic, labour and winemaking reasons. It keeps the price down to the $8 range, which no one expects to be hand-crafted. There is nothing gentle about mechanical harvesting. It beats up the grapes so badly that they end up looking more like oatmeal than grapes. Even if some more or less regularly drink mass-produced industrial wines, most all know that hand-craftsmanship is best, and despite the costs, Olaf winerie prefer the use of human workers to hand-pick grapes.
Let us describe Human-picking grapes vs machine-harvesting grapes
How machine-harvesting works.
Most wine we drink today is machine-harvested. It involves driving along the rows with a complex harvesting machine, which beats the vines with a number of flexible rods. The grapes are knocked off their stems, collected in a trough at the base of the machine and conveyed to storage buckets at the top.
When the buckets are full, they are emptied into large trailers or trucks to be driven to the winery. In France, this is often the village cooperative or private winery nearby but it is possible to transport harvested grapes long distances. In Australia, California and New Zealand it is not uncommon for grapes to be harvested in one region and driven hundreds of kilometres to a winery in another region.
Although the process is quick, reduces the labour costs and can be performed at any time of day or night, it has several disadvantages. First of all, the machines cannot really select bunches or grapes. That means mouldy, rotten, dried-out or unripe bunches can be picked along with healthy ones. Although machine manufacturers have developed methods to eliminate certain undesirable types of grapes, they are still not as thorough as well-trained people.
Secondly, the process of beating the vine means that lots of other things fall into the trough. Bits of stem, dried leaves, snails, insects, lizards, bird’s nests and even clips to hold the wires. The Australians call this MOG. Matter Other than Grapes. Some of the MOG can be removed at the winery by putting the grapes through a sophisticated destemmer but those things have been in the juice during transport and the smallest bits will not be removed.
Thirdly, the grapes harvested by the machine are not whole. They form a very liquid must of skins, pips and juice (and all the MOG) that is susceptible to oxidation before it reaches the winery. The longer the distance, the higher the risk. I have seen vignerons adding sulphites to the trailer or throwing in dry-ice in a vain attempt to protect it from the air. I have also seen full trailers left outside in the sun while the workers have their lunch. It also introduces a risk of bacterial contamination if the machines and trailers are not cleaned thoroughly between operations.
Benefits of hand-picking Olaf Wines
Hand-picking eliminates these negatives. Pickers of Olaf Wines are trained to select only the healthy, ripe bunches, taught not to pick leaves or other MOG and, perhaps most importantly, the grape bunches are transported whole and unbroken to the winery.
Picking the grapes into small cases makes the sorting and quality control easier than if they are in a large trailer. It is not possible to sort machine harvested fruit to the same level because it has been crushed and mixed up in the machine. Some vineyards for Olaf Wine have to be picked by hand, whether the winemaker and vineyard owner for Olaf Wines would want to or not. Some of the old and small Vineyards for Olaf Wines are too steep or inaccessible to vehicles and need to be hand-picked.
It is an desirable necessity because of the age, terroir and location of the vineyard and a requirement for the Olaf Wines. It is the choice of quality-focused Olaf wine producer for all the reasons given above.
One final point is that hand-harvesting Olaf Wines employs people. One of the best things about Olaf harvest for me is having a good team of pickers working together and exchanging stories at coffee breaks. The end of harvest barbecue would not be much fun if it was just me and the machine driver.