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October 16, 2008

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Tom: I think this post raises some interesting ideas, but I've heard arguments on both side of this thing.

Most of what you're saying about hand harvesting is true I think, but I have heard that because lugs filled with grapes sometimes sit on the ground for a while before actually getting into the winery, that fruit can start to deteriorate (it starts almost immediately). Also, when lugs, that have been on the ground are stacked, grass/dirt/etc can get onto the grapes.

As for mechanical harvesters. I've been told that with the right operators and the right tuning, most, if not all, of the MOG can be avoided. That said, I haven't seen one in action yet so I can't say for sure based on first-hand experience.

Thanks for the contribution...hopefully some others will chime in with their experiences and thoughts.

Tom;

I received Machine picked Merlot last week and I actually find it to be cleaner than hand harvested grapes. Out of 6 tons of grapes the destemmer kicked out one branch about 6 inches long.

I also received 4 tons of hand harvested Dechaunac grapes that week and they all had to be sorted carefully because they were full of leaves and occasional straw from birds nests.

One thing I completely agree on, it is essential that the grapes need to get to the crusher ASAP.

Jonathan Hull
Applewood Winery

This is one case where beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The reality is not so simple or straightforward.

In fact as Tom indicated hand harvesting has lots of benefits, if done well. But it does not automatically follow that hand harvesting will guarantee the best outcome.

As Lenn pointed out, there are things to guard against:

- Typically hand harvesting takes longer with fruit sitting in boxes on the floor of the vineyard. By the time the fruit is being processed the average cluster has been cut a few hours ago.
- While the fruit may be clean and properly selected, this benefit is erased if dirt from box bottoms is allowed to get on the fruit, which frequently it does as workers do not seem to be aware of this problem.
- We harvest on sunny days and occasionally it warms up. This will cause microbial activity to start. And the longer the fruit sits the more likely it will be negatively affected.
- If boxes are overfilled, the berries can get crushed as boxes are stacked on top of each other.

Similarly machine harvesting can create problems well described by Tom.
- A machine must be in top mechanical shape, otherwise if it malfunctions it will cause serious damage.
- The operator has to be very skilled in the functions of the machine and how to adapt them to the condition of the fruit and the canopy. In the hands of an operator who is just a tractor driver, expect bad outcomes. However in the hand of a well trained and experienced operator, it can be a great outcome as described by Jonathan Hull.

So what to do?
In 2000 we traded our old harvester for the newest Braud model. Yet we wondered, since we aim at the highest quality in our wines, whether that investment was a good one. In order to validate it we decided to conduct an expriment.
We took a block of Cabernet Sauvignon and divided it in 2. Both sections were treated identically except for the harvesting method.
Section 1 was harvested by machine and section 2 by hand. The vinification was identical. The following April when we finally started tasting the finished wines to make an assessment, we expected, based on the "conventional wisdom", that the hand harvested wine will be better. The only questions were how much better and does the difference justify foregoing the machine.

After we tasted we thought we made a mistake and started again: the results were again surprising as we thought that there was a very small advantage to the machine harvested wine. After we got over our surprise we set out to try and understand why it was so. We are not quite sure of all the parameters but we came to the following conclusions:

- As pointed out by Tom, the machine is not selective. Therefore it is of utmost importance to inspect the fruit in detail before harvest to cull out the blemished fruit if any, a practice that we have been following for years.
- Again it is worth repeating that the equipment must be at its best operating capability and the operator at his best. Our youngest son is, thankfully very skilled at both.
- Since the dsitance between the vines and the crush pad is only a few thousand feet, the time it takes for the fruit to go from the vine to the tank is very small, allowing us to take control of the process as quickly as can be done, avoiding microbial infections.
-Is there a freshness factor at work? We all know that corn tastes best when picked and that it deteriorates rapidly as sugar is converted to starch. There is no such conversion in grapes but the analogy is worth pondering.

We get hardly any MOG in our trailer. We get mostly whole berries. We have added a sorting table to the process and it is further confirmation of the above that very little is found and taken out at the sorting table.

In conclusion I would say, like with so many other things in life, either method can yield good or bad results. It is not whether machine harvesting or hand harvesting is better or worse. It is very much how one does them that makes the difference.

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