With harvest under way in California’s prime wine grape growing areas, a “constant challenge” in all American Viticulture Areas is the shortage of labor, a grower group reports.
Many growers are responding to the shortage by hiring more full-time workers throughout the year rather than trying to rely on seasonal help, according to the Sonoma County Winegrowers.
An increasing number of growers are using the H-2A agricultural work visa program to build a reliable work force, but many are challenged by the program’s housing requirement, the grower group notes in a news release.
And as mechanization becomes more efficient, some wineries and growers are working together to mechanically harvest their grapes this season.
Still, growers are embracing the return of harvest and its long hours and hectic schedules, says Karissa Kruse, Sonoma County Winegrowers president. “As you travel the county, you can tell that harvest time is here. The action is picking up,” she says.
RETURN TO NORMAL
Growers see this year’s harvest as a sort of return to normal, although it feels late to many after the 2017 harvest was one of the earliest on record. As it turns out, last year’s early harvest was fortuitous, considering that most of the crop was in by the time the wine country fires shrouded the area in smoke in October.
“No one will ever forget last year, but we’re all appreciating the arrival of the new harvest season,” Kruse says.
In Sonoma County, the season’s first wine grapes came off the vines Aug. 15. To celebrate, U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., presented an American flag that had been flown over the Capitol to Angelo Sangiacomo of Sangiacomo Family Vineyards at Sonoma.
Napa County’s harvest started Aug. 14. Elsewhere, vineyards were irrigated in preparation for harvest, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service office at Sacramento.
Growers say this year’s cool, wet spring and pleasant summer weather have made for a “picture-perfect growing season.” The cool spring appeared to slow some growth and hold back degree day accumulations, which pushed the harvest back as much as 10 days to two weeks later than last season in many areas, according to Sonoma County Winegrowers.
Early in the year, a lack of rain had some growers concerned that they would need to irrigate before bud break, but a wet March and April added plenty of water to the soil profile. New irrigation techniques and more efficient water practices have also helped growers in the last several years.
“There has been ample water and a relatively cool spring and summer, which helped prolong the growing season, and the grape quality looks really good,” Kruse says.
However, labor has been and will remain the big concern at harvest, growers say. Such tasks as pruning, canopy work, and vineyard improvements can be staggered during the growing season, and have little effect on the crop. But once harvest begins, getting the fruit picked at its optimum maturity requires immediate access to skilled labor, the winegrowing group notes.