Vineyard Tools and Equipment for a Successful Harvest

It’s that time of year again – the time to seriously start preparing for the upcoming harvest. Harvest is the busiest time of the year for vineyards of all shapes and sizes, which is why it’s so important to start planning early to get the right tools and equipment in place.

Vineyard Harvest 101

Most North American wineries are fully engaged in their annual grape harvest in the months of August, September, and October, but the prep work to get to this critical stage starts well before then. There are a few different ways to set the grape harvest up for success.

Some vineyards swear by traditional hand harvesting, while others have found that mechanical harvesting suits their needs better. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, but specific tools and pieces of equipment are needed for both strategies. While hand harvesting allows for high precision and protects the grape skins from damage and the juice from oxidation, mechanical harvesters may be ideal for larger vineyards in search of a cost-effective and efficient process. Often, a combination of the two methods strikes the perfect balance when it comes time to harvest grapes.

Many things affect the success of an annual grape harvest, including the grapes’ ripeness, the weather, and the variety of grapes grown. Tannins, acids, and sugar content determine ripeness, while a cold winter with high precipitation can improve how the grapes perform in a bottle of wine.

There’s no such thing as the “perfect day” for harvesting, but it certainly helps to have dry weather. Most viticulturists agree that it’s better to pick grapes a few days late rather than a few days too early if you’re planning around the weather. For a successful harvest, it is also strongly advised to take precautions to keep wildlife out of the rows, harvest early in the morning while it’s still chilly outside, and to plan for adequate labor for the big day. Customized planning tools, such as spreadsheets about grape tonnages, bottling projections based on crop estimates, and harvesting tools, can make a huge difference in a vineyard’s harvest operations.

Tools, Equipment, and Maintenance

The tools and equipment chosen for harvest play a role in how smoothly these operations will go. Unlike the weather, equipment is within the realm of a vintner’s control, so harnessing that power by keeping the correct equipment in stock and correctly maintaining them is recommended.

To prepare for harvest, vintners will need quality shaker tables and sorting belts for fruit handling. Maintain these items as necessary, tightening tables and belts, checking them for damage, cleaning them, and making any repairs as needed. Check the chains, door seals, motors, and pneumatics of your grape press as well. Also, make sure to replace any worn-down bladders or parts and do a pre-harvest test on float switches.

Vineyard pumps may need an oil change, or have worn-down parts and seals replaced, particularly on positive displacement pumps. It’s also a good idea to check the cable remotes that regulate pump speed and to keep spare parts for them in a storage area just in case of a last-minute issue.

Many vineyards use forklifts during harvest time, so around this time of year, make sure to service any electric lifts. For wineries without forklifts, now is the time to look into renting one or more from a local supply company.

Refrigeration is vital during harvest, so perform a system check on all refrigeration systems before harvest. An outside company often handles this unless you’re lucky enough to have a refrigeration expert on staff, so set up any necessary appointments soon. Don’t forget to check barrel supplies and order barrels early so that they arrive well in advance of needing them. When they come, remember to perform leak testing with hot water to avoid any unpleasant surprises when they are filled with wine.

Various types of cellar equipment, including valves, lines, hoses, cross-flow filters, and pump-over devices, should be checked and cleaned prior to harvest. Plan for needed delivery vehicles once the grapes are picked, such as flatbed trucks or fifth-wheel trailers. If the vineyard takes a manual approach to harvesting, assess the quantity and quality of fruit-picking shears, knives, sharpening stones, buckets, and grape bins.

What the Experts Say

When asked about the essential aspect of preparing for a successful vineyard harvest, Mike Fitzgerald of American Grape Harvesters, Inc. (AGH) in Fresno, California told The Grapevine Magazine, “The most important asset a company can have is a core workforce that is motivated and cares about the business. Then they need the proper tools to perform the job at hand.”

AGH has been providing durable, dependable harvesting equipment options and innovations since 1969. This company is a nationwide leader in mechanized viticulture and the leading manufacturer of grape harvesters and related equipment in the Western Hemisphere. AGH’s Spectrum and Quantum grape harvesters accept a variety of picking mechanisms, which means that nearly all vineyard terrains, trellis types, and grape varieties can be gently and effectively harvested. For example, the Quantum Grape Harvester is the preferred harvesting tool of many California grape growers, especially with its preferred trunk-shaking Mantis. It has a 36-inch side-to-side leveling capacity and a six-cylinder Cummins power plant that allows it to operate in vineyards with eight-foot-wide rows.

If you own or rent vineyard mechanization equipment, such as a mechanized harvester, this should be tested well in advance of the first harvest day to make any needed repairs before that time.

Grant DeVries of Vine Tech Equipment in Prosser Washington told The Grapevine Magazine, “If large enough an operation for a mechanical harvester, make sure everything is in perfect running condition and that you have the common spare parts on hand to prevent or minimize downtime when in the middle of harvest. Also, make sure tractors, harvest trailers, and gondolas are in good running condition as well. If the operation is not large enough for a mechanical harvester, make sure you have enough hand labor or a custom harvest operation lined up to harvest your vineyard.”

Vine Tech Equipment is a family-owned business that services virtually every brand of specialty agriculture equipment with parts from all major equipment brands and skilled technicians. DeVries recommends investing in a new or used mechanical harvester if operations can justify it. For example, Pellenc has been a trend-setter in the vineyard industry with its multi-function capabilities and on-board sorting. Other recommended harvesters for grapes are the Nairn harvesters and AGH harvesters. Meanwhile, the Pellenc Selectiv’ Process Winery is a linear destemming harvest system that keeps the fruit and stems intact, resulting in greater cleanliness and less waste.

“In my opinion, the most important equipment is the harvesting machine,” said Gregg Marrs of Blueline Manufacturing Company, Inc. “With the difficulties of finding an adequate labor supply, the timing of the fruit harvest is very important and can have a detrimental effect on fruit quality.”  Blueline specializes in designing and building equipment for the vineyard and orchard industry, as well as creating custom and specialty items that are unique to an operation but that aren’t currently in production. With seven locations throughout central and eastern Washington, Blueline offers the Gregoire and Ero brands of harvesters that vineyards can utilize.

“Our harvesters are economically viable for growers with small to medium vineyards, as well as large corporate growers,” Marrs said. “Machines are available in self-propelled and tractor-towed models.”

While vineyards use a majority of AgFast Corporation’s products during the planting process, several of this company’s offerings come in handy while planning for harvest as well. This equipment includes AgFast’s tying devices, training devices, drip irrigation products, trellis hardware, DripLok, Wirevise, and Wirelink products. The company is based in Pomona, California and specializes in both vineyard and orchard equipment.

“Each AgFast product has been carefully engineered to serve a specific function in the vineyard or orchard,” AgFast representative Cheryl Pirih said. “They are designed for easy field use with a minimum of tools. AgFast products are made from materials that allow them to resist deterioration from chemicals and extremes in temperature. The plastic products contain a carbon back additive to enhance their resistance to UV deterioration.”

Other Equipment and Supply Considerations

Now that the proper tools and equipment are in place, there are some additional considerations to keep in mind around this time of the year. It is crucial to sterilize all equipment to ensure that no spoilage bacteria or other harmful residues remain. This type of equipment prep goes beyond the tools mentioned above and extends to buckets, shears, funnels, and fermentation vessels as well. Also, while out in the rows, a simple dip into an isopropyl alcohol solution after working on each vine will help keep equipment sterile and clean throughout harvest days.

Other crucial considerations to remember include planning for staffing and establishing a harvest safety protocol. While some vineyards manage all of their equipment maintenance and repairs, others hire expert companies to handle these aspects for them. Keep in mind that in many parts of the country, it is possible to purchase equipment individually or jointly with a neighbor, or rent essential pieces on a temporary basis from a local supply company.

Expert Advice for a Successful Harvest

Much of the stress of harvest is the result of poor planning, but this is something that one can be proactive about with experience and perhaps a little trial and error. We’ll close with a few pieces of advice about how to ensure a successful harvest from our industry experts who have helped many wineries prepare for this busy time of year and remedy harvest-related issues when they arise.  DeVries from Vine Tech Equipment advises to “stay on top of disease control; 2017 was a bad powdery mildew year in some areas on the West Coast. Our Quantum Mist sprayers are able to go from low to high gallons per acre with excellent coverage.”  Concerning AgFast product offerings, Pirih’s said, “Start the harvest season with the right tying, training, irrigation, and trellis hardware to make harvest season successful.”

Marrs of Blueline Manufacturing’s central piece of advice revolves around having a plan set in place for harvest time. “If you own a harvester, make sure it’s ready to go into the field,” he said. “If you are hiring a contractor, make sure you are communicating with them about your expected harvest dates. Make sure there is an understanding between you and the contractor regarding pricing and who is responsible for every component of the harvest, including tractors, gondolas, and transportation of the grapes.”

Fitzgerald of AGH’s focuses on equipment. “Make sure all equipment is ready to run, even if you do not intend to use it. That piece of old equipment may be necessary when you have a problem. Your backup plan needs to be ready.”