The definition of harvest is ”the process or period of gathering in crops.” When we are talking about wine grapes in Idaho that covers the months of September, October, and November. It’s a time when the grape growers get to see how their plans worked out and the winemakers get real busy in their wineries. Of course, Mother Nature takes a hand in all of this as well! Along with economics, climate science, immigration policy, and international trade issues.
First things first though. Those wonderful grapes need to get from the vine to the winery. There are a few ways this can happen. You can send a crew of workers out to harvest the grapes by hand, which can get you more grapes in better condition but takes some skill and time to make happen. Another way is to ask for volunteers to help you pick your fruit but that scheme has challenges as well. (it’s hard to get volunteers to work on a farmers timeframe). Then there is the process of using machines to harvest the grapes, which is faster and requires fewer people but is a little more brutal to the fruit.
I was lucky to be asked to go out and harvest some Sunnyslope Idaho Viognier with Mike and Patrick Williamson from Williamson Orchards and Vineyards in September of 2019. The winemaker wanted the grapes to be cool when they were harvested and into the winery by 8:00 am so it was an early start. By the light of a headlamp, I was introduced to the world of mechanical harvesting. The Williamsons have a harvester that is towed behind and powered by their farm tractor. While the harvester straddles one row of vines and shakes the grapes off of them, there is a second tractor one row over that tags along beside the harvester to collect the grapes and stems from the conveyors that lift the fruit up and over the row. Notice the lights of beautiful downtown Marsing off in the background in the picture below!
It’s an amazing process and quite loud too. Luckily we were harvesting right below Mike’s parent's house and Roger and Sue didn’t make a fuss! The fruit was in the bins and on it’s way to the winery by 7 am. While there was some waste doing it this way, the harvest was done quickly and only required 3 folks to bring it in (2 tractor drivers and a bin manager). This video clip should help set the scene for the commotion involved!
For comparison here is a “Before machine picking” and “After machine picking” shot of some grape vines that I took after the sun came up on the block, we harvested.
In October 2019, Idaho suffered 2 cold nights in a row with temperatures in the low 20 degree Fahrenheit range. While it warmed up during the days it did damage the vines leafy canopy to the extent that photosynthesis stopped and the canopy died off. That means that Mother Nature just flipped off the switch and stopped the grapes from growing any more. With no more growth, the stems get more brittle each passing day and the vineyard manager runs the risk of seeing all the fruit falling to the ground if they wait too long to pick. It is time to bring the grapes all in at this point but the farmers are still hamstrung by the low number of crews that are available to do the work. With few agricultural workers and restrictive immigration policies, this puts a squeeze on the ag industry since so many crops are ready to pick all at the same time.
There is another way around the farm labor issue. Our friends at Huston Vineyards throw an annual Harvest event so their wine club members can help them bring in the grapes. The e-mail call went out and a crew of hearty volunteers showed up on Columbus Day to harvest the last of the Huston Cabernet blocks on their estate vineyard. A bucket and a sharp set of pruning clippers are the low tech tools for a manual harvest. Teams of 2 go up and down the rows and collect clusters in buckets and then dump them into bins. The same process works with professional farm crews as well but I will say the lunch spread Mary Alger put together was a pretty darn good reward for the afternoon’s labor!
The largest grower of grapes in Idaho is Winemakers LLC out at Skyline Vineyards off Surrey Lane south of Nampa. They use machines and hand crews to meet the needs of the myriad winemakers that contract with them for grapes every year. Their harvesters are self-propelled units and run even faster than the towed unit I saw earlier. Again it is just a crew of 3 guys that make this all happen. One minor side effect of vibrating the grapes off the vines is that it does free up some sticky juice that goes almost everywhere! With two hopper trailers running to keep up, the big blue harvester makes short work of the longer rows out south of town. There isn’t a better office view in the world though on a great fall day. One downside to machine harvesting is that these machines are not cheap! They also require about 3-4 hours of cleaning and maintenance after every use so they really only make sense when used on larger properties with a lot of vines. I would guess that the minimum pick size would be about 10 acres of grapes at a time to make it financially viable to fire up one of these big boys.
We will talk about what happens to these grapes next in a future blog but needless to say it’s a herculean effort by a lot of folks to get these grapes harvested. Throughout Idaho, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find the labor force that will do this kind of work. With changes to the H-2A and H-2B Federal Visa programs, wage pressure and the seasonal nature of farm work, it’s getting more and more difficult to bring in the crops.
The wine we enjoy and the food we eat does not come from the grocery store. It comes THROUGH that store down the street but it all comes from a farm. Phrases like “I farm – you eat” and “No Farms, No Food” are catchy but they are also true. While we produce more and more food per acre with fewer and fewer workers in this country we need to remember that it’s the small farmers that put the best food on our tables.
Please take some time to learn about local Agriculture wherever you live. The Agventure Trail in Canyon County is a great resource to explore first. When you sit down at a 'Farm to Cork' or 'Farm to Table' dinner you are supporting some of the hardest working folks I know , in the most direct way you can. Shop at a local farmers market or check out local farmers on the internet like McIntyre Farms (Canyon County Farm Family of the year in 2019) to experience food the way our ancestors did!
I need to thank all the folks that took time out to share the grape harvest with me. Mike and Patrick Williamson probably should have warned me not to stand behind the harvester while it was running but I really did enjoy the opportunity to get messy with them both. Jake Cragin, Dale Jeffers, and Aaron were spectacular hosts out at SkylineVineyards on a beautiful day and Gregg and Mary Alger at Huston Vineyards always put together a great event too…in a “Huck Finn paint the fence” sort of way!
Cheers and hug a farmer the next time you see one!
The Idaho Wine Ambassador
About Jim Thomssen, the Idaho Wine Ambassador: Jim grew up in Minnesota but moved west to get away from the snow. He landed in Washington state with a degree in Economics. He discovered the wines of Washington in the 1980s as the region emerged, and when his banking career brought him to the Treasure Valley in 1993 he saw the wine region in Idaho had the same potential. Jim has worked with and volunteered for the Caldwell Economic Development, The Idaho Wine Commission, The University of Idaho, Great Northwest Wine, and the Sunnyslope Wine Trail over the last ten years to help develop the Idaho wine industry and promote Idaho wines. Jim is an avid wine traveler and has visited Napa Valley, the Alsace, and Portugal. He earned the title of Ambassador after arranging a trip to the Rioja in Spain with an Idaho Winemaker to explore the differences and similarities between the Snake River AVA and the Rioja Alta.