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Robots Among the Vines

Wineries are turning to technology—drones, mechanical harvesters and robots—to provide statistics and help produce good fruit in the hopes that it will solve labor shortage issues plaguing farmers. And the best part is that many of these modern vineyard tools are efficient and cost-effective.

“One machine harvester can pick as much as 100 people can,” said Jeff Pomo, the Soledad, California-based director of vineyards for Constellation Brands. “There’s cost savings there [as it]…would be impossible to harvest all our fruit by hand.”

A new harvester machine can cost as much as $600,000, according to Kim Stemler, executive director of California’s Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association.

But the results of mechanic harvesting have gotten much better over the years, said Jon Moramarco, a Napa-based partner in the research firm of Gomberg & Fredrikson. According to Stemler, “The harvester just shakes the vines-so only those grapes that are ready fall off.”


Scheid Family Wines, in Salinas, CA, has been an early adopter of new technologies. Director of Winemaking, Dave Nagengast, said the winery’s advancements include drones to analyze irrigation needs, Brix (the sugar-level) and collect other data.

While the costs can be high, “the payoff is higher quality, increased efficiency and greater safety,” Nagengast said.

Drones already in use can “capture low-altitude, multi-spectral images of wine grape vineyards,” which indicate the relative health of the vines, said Kevin Gould, chief executive of Napa-based Hawk Aerial.

They cost between $5,000 and $10,000, or rent for $15 an acre, Gould said. Drones fly over the vineyards in a land-mover pattern, and the data is then “formatted into a map which the grower can then use to determine which areas of the vineyard require attention, such as changes in irrigation, nutrition, disease, pests, etc.”

The EU Funds Research

Overseas, the European Union (EU) gave a three-year grant of €1.7 million to VineScout, a coalition of private companies and universities, to build a robot that can aid wine producers throughout Europe by measuring key vineyard parameters, such as water availability, vine leaf/canopy temperature and variations in plant vitality.

The prototype is currently wandering the Douro Valley’s Symington Family Estates. The Port producer, a coalition member, is testing the robot, which operates autonomously using GPS guidance that allows it to navigate between vines with a low-carbon footprint.