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Labor shortage prompts Paso Robles winemaker to harvest grapes with machine

Posted at 6:30 PM, Oct 25, 2018

The grapes in Paul Hoover’s Still Waters Vineyard are ready to be harvested. For the first time, many of them will not be picked by hand.

“My joke is, the machine is ready to go to work every morning when I get there,” Hoover said.

After 25 years in the wine industry, Hoover is turning to technology in the wake of the agriculture industry’s labor shortage.

“It was getting to where I was just so concerned that with the time it was going to take our country to somehow figure out immigration and the workforce in California, I just had more and more anxiety.”

Hoover says he spent about $120,000 on labor for his 2017 harvest.

He made a $300,000 investment in buying a Pellenc wine grape harvesting machine and says it is already paying itself off.

“It can basically do what 10 guys can do in a full day, in about two hours,” said Hoover.

At 60 acres, Still Waters is one of the smallest vineyards in California to be harvested with one of the Pellenc machines.

Critics question whether a machine can pick as meticulously as human hands.

Hoover is picking grapes for a dozen other local winemakers, including Chris Eberle.

“I don’t feel like there’s any big difference,” said Chris Ebler, winemaker for Eberle Winery. “Sometimes when it comes to whites you would prefer hand picking and I would as well, but with reds, absolutely I see no difference in quality.”

Eberle has harvested grapes around the world and says this technology is common outside of the U.S.

“Australia and New Zealand is probably 90 to 95 percent machine-harvested and they have been for decades,” said Eberle. “I think with the way that labor is going and the shortages and the cost, this is the way it’s going to go.”

Plus, Hoover says the machine will help him make better wine because it’s ready to harvest grapes when the weather conditions are exactly right.

“One of the biggest wine-making secrets of this machine is it’ll pick the fruit at the right temperature,” Hoover said.

After an expensive and anxiety-ridden harvest last year, Hoover says this year’s mechanized harvest is a step in the right direction for his business.

“It’s brought the fun back for me.”

Hoover says he is already receiving requests from other winemakers to buy grapes from his vineyard that would be picked with the machine in the 2019 harvest. He expects other local vineyards will be using a machine like his by this time next year.