When it comes to creating high-end wines, winemakers have been using the same recipe for hundreds of years: limit oxygen exposure, age with toasted oak and harvest by hand. At Atlas Vineyard Management, we hand-harvest all of our vineyards. There are many reasons we choose hand harvesting over mechanization, but they are all part of the same goal: quality.When it comes to creating high-end wines, winemakers have been using the same recipe for hundreds of years: limit oxygen exposure, age with toasted oak and harvest by hand. At Atlas Vineyard Management, we hand-harvest all of our vineyards. There are many reasons we choose hand harvesting over mechanization, but they are all part of the same goal: quality.
Francisco Araujo, director of quality control and technical winegrowing operations at Atlas, explains that “picking” is an accurate way to describe the process. By individually harvesting vineyard blocks, picking crews are able to select healthy clusters to take to the winery, leaving behind fruit with rot, sunburn and other defects.
According to online wine community Bottlenotes, “The best wines around the world are made with hand-harvested grapes. Hand-picking the grapes ensures a level of gentleness and discrimination that a machine cannot possibly achieve.”
From Atlas Peak to the Santa Rita Hills, many of the West Coast’s most celebrated wines are grown on hillsides where machines cannot travel and hand-harvesting is preferred. To create small-batch or vineyard-designate wines, winemakers often order harvests for small sections or vineyard blocks, places where mechanical harvesting is expensive and inefficient. Additionally, Lyre, Y-type trellises and those with overhead canopies can only be harvested by hand.
Most mechanized harvesting in California takes place in the Central Valley, which produces large amounts of bulk wine. In regions known for high-end wines, meanwhile, hand-harvesting remains the popular choice.
According to the Napa Valley Vintners, “Nearly all of Napa Valley’s wine grapes are picked by hand.” The correlation between hand-harvesting and quality is straightforward, according to Francisco: The winemakers who are devoted to producing very high-end artisan wines prefer hand-picking.
Getting ready to pick
Harvesting by hand sounds easy enough, but if you think anyone with a pair of gloves can harvest a vineyard, think again. Francisco outlines the necessary items as follows: tractors, forklift, scale, harvest trailers, plastic trays (lugs) for workers to fill with up to 30 pounds of clusters and Macro Bins or Valley Bins for transporting grapes to the winery (Atlas uses half-ton Macro Bins). As for the workers themselves, each individual needs his or her own light (for night harvests) and a knife, shears or scissors.
Curved grape-harvesting knives are standard, but some owners like their grapes picked using scissors or shears, reasoning that they allow stems to be cut from canes with less manipulation. According to Francisco, experienced pickers can make quick, clean cuts with any of these tools.
Bringing in a picking crew
The planning that goes into harvesting a vineyard—even a small one—is immense. Moving tractors to the picking site, making sure people show up on time and ready to work, dealing with labor regulations and having trays, water and portable bathrooms for the crew is an incredible feat of logistics. Plus, much of it happens in the dark!
Even small vineyards get great benefits from having experienced pickers and harvest organizers figuring out the details. Much like a puzzle, the pieces need to fit together just right.