Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
BATAVIA — Cedar Valley Winery entered a new era this fall when it used a mechanical harvester to pick its eight acres of grapevines.
The winery is located just east of Batavia on Highway 34. Seth Miller, one of the owners, said the vineyard was planted in 2002, and the winery opened seven years later. It yields 30,000-40,000 pounds of grapes every year, and its winery produces 10,000 bottles of wine.
Until this year, the company had always hired workers to harvest grapes by hand, usually employing 20 people per day on the few days of harvest each fall. However, it became so hard to find enough workers that the owners started looking for other options, and found a father and son in Fort Dodge willing to rent them a mechanical harvester made in France and popular in California’s wine industry.
Over Labor Day weekend, the harvester was put to work collecting about half the grapes, including the varieties LaCrosse, Vignoles and Marechal Foch. The harvester was set to finish the job on Saturday, Sept. 17 by collecting the other two varieties of grape grown at the site, Norton and Chambourcin.
David Miller, Seth’s father and another of the owners, said the owners really like the job the harvester has done, and will probably use it again next year.
“We were really impressed,” David said. “The machine did an excellent job, and did not tear up the vines much at all. In some respects, it did a better job than even hand-picking.”
David explained that, in previous harvests, a certain number of grapes fall on the ground in the process of picking them, especially if workers are not paying close attention.
“We saw a lot of waste of grapes that had fallen down, but this time around, the ground is clean,” he said. “These machines have a conveyor under the plant that picks up the grapes as they fall.”
Seth said the company had relied on hand-picking until this year because workers could pick through the fruit, removing leaves, stems and other debris. He said the mechanical harvesters he was familiar with often mangled the plants.
“With the old harvesters, it looked like a tornado went through the vineyard,” he said. “The grapes got broken and the leaves were pulled off. That’s not good for vineyard management. Vines are really stressed because they put so much energy into maturing their fruit, and after you pick them, they need time to get ready for winter. With our new machine, you could hardly tell it went through.”
Seth said the early grape harvesters mashed the grapes, creating what he referred to as “grape soup.” But the new machine is much better at picking the grapes cleanly.
“I’d say 80 percent of the grapes are still intact, and it doesn’t damage the fruit before we have to start processing it,” he said.
David said the owners were reluctant to go with mechanical harvesting, but the labor shortage left them no choice.
“It can take 20 people all day to pick one variety, and we have five varieties,” he said. “You can’t get too many people to work in the sun for eight to 10 hours a day.”
Seth said that sometimes clubs will pitch in to help with the harvest so raise money for a project. The company has also tried to recruit high school students, farm kids or “anybody who would like to make some extra spending money.”
“Most of those avenues have dried up,” he said.
The mechanical harvester is now doing the work of those 20 pickers, but the company still needs six to eight people to do the other tasks such as running the machines to take the stems off the grapes, pressing the juice out, and then fermenting the grapes.
David said Iowa has good weather for growing grapes. Its weather is comparable to places of the world famous for wine, such as the nation of Georgia (the birthplace of viticulture) and the area around Verdun, France.
“Our climate is not a problem, and grapes tend to be grown in drier weather. Our upside is that we don’t have to irrigate in Iowa,” he said. “The downside is that our humidity tends to create more conditions for mold and bacteria to grow.”
David said every environment will produce a different flavor of wine. For instance, Iowa wines tend to be more acidic, which David likes.
“I see it as a great, sustainable crop for Iowa, which is one reason I got into it,” David said. “A family can make a living off it.”
Call Andy Hallman at 641-575-0135 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org