Kevin Merrill

Kevin Merrill

Wine grape harvest along the Central Coast is moving ahead slowly. What many thought would be an early harvest has turned out to be a waiting game on ripening.

The roller coaster of cool fall weather mixed with warm Indian summer days aren’t helping the sugar content of the fruit get where it needs to be for harvest. Luckily for me, both the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes I manage had high enough sugar and flavor to pick. I should be done picking our Syrah grapes this week.

I always have a sense of accomplishment as both the hand crews and mechanical harvesters fill the waiting trucks each day of harvest. A mixed emotion, as you want to move along through each field, but not too fast, as the more fruit on the vines the longer it takes to pick.

At the end of each shift we know how many acres we picked along with the tons per acre. I am constantly communicating with the winery and truck dispatchers so we are ready for the days ahead. Our grapes make up just a small part of what is being delivered to the wineries day and night, and communication is key to keeping every aspect of harvest running smoothly.

I remember when I first began working with the machines that tower over the grapevines during harvest. I was working for McCarthy Farming where the White Hills vineyard is today. McCarthy built their own over-the-row harvesters. Vernal Amaro was instrumental in their development, which included both one and two-row machines. The two-row harvesters were used at McCarthy’s vineyards both in the Central Valley and San Bernabe vineyard in King City. The one-row machines were used here and other locations where vines were planted on sandy hillsides. Vernal designed the one-row machines to go up and down the sandy hills where commercially-manufactured harvesters would not climb without getting stuck.

I was an equipment foreman in those days and the mechanical harvesting was going to be my responsibility. Two weeks or so before harvest McCarthy sent several of us over to their Chowchilla Ranch where they were picking, to learn how the harvesters operated. I remember Dominic Pecchenino, Pepe Rodriguez and I drove over to Chowchilla early one morning and spent the day learning about harvesters.

They were harvesting French Colombard grapes for Gallo and there were four or five huge two-row machines making their way through rows of vines. The machines were dumping into semi-trailers with 12-ton gondolas, similar to what you see processing tomatoes hauled in. I think they were picking at least 15 tons of fruit per acre.

The conveyor belts on the machines were full of fruit as the machines shook them from the vines and into the trailers being pulled alongside the machines through the vineyard. We learned how the picking heads and the rest of the machine operated as the parts were the same on the one-row machines we were going to use in Santa Maria.

The picking heads on mechanical harvesters have come a long way since those days. The older machines utilized two flat pieces of steel called “skis” that shook the trunk to remove the fruit. Today fiberglass rods gently remove the fruit from the vines. I don’t believe there are any commercially-manufactured machines that will climb the sand hills like Vernal’s one-row machines. There are times when I wish I still had one in our fleet.

As another harvest comes to an end for me, hopefully our Indian summer is over and you get a chance to get out and see our vineyards begin to show off their fall colors, maybe do a little wine tasting and enjoy the fruit of our labors.

Kevin Merrill of Mesa Vineyard Management is a board member of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau and a director on the Santa Barbara County Fair Board. He can be reached at kmerrill@mesavineyrd.com

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