The History of Mechanical Harvesters

Grape harvesting by mechanical means is a relatively new phenomenon. Early machines straddled a row of vines and shook them, causing ripe berries to fall off the vine and onto a conveyor belt.

Today’s machines are sophisticated engineering marvels. They have a variety of bells and whistles, which enable them to efficiently remove foreign materials such as stems and MOG.

Did you know? The first patent for a grape harvester was granted in the 1850s. However, it took over a century for mechanical harvesters to become a common sight in vineyards. Today’s advanced machines can harvest up to 200 tons of grapes in a single day, while ensuring the grapes remain intact and of high quality. That’s a grape-load of efficiency!

History of Mechanical Harvesters

Until the middle of the 20th century, grapes were harvested by hand, a huge job that required many people. Workers picked the grapes, brought them to vats between rows and lifted them high enough to dump into wagons that transported them to the winery for pressing. It was back-breaking work and not especially efficient.

The emergence of mechanical harvesters was triggered by the need for labor-saving machinery in vineyards where skilled, professional grape pickers were difficult to find and expensive. Vineyard mechanization was an inevitable consequence of the changing times and the rise of industrialization.

As the number of wine drinkers has increased, so too has the need for speed and efficiency in the vineyard. In fact, it is estimated that a machine can harvest an acre in less than one hour, compared to five hours for humans. That speed is particularly critical when there are large volumes of ripe grapes ready at the same time or when bad weather is imminent.

Early mechanical harvesters weren’t the best, with squeezing and shaking grapes causing damage to the skins and sometimes even breaking the vines themselves. Leaves, sticks and other debris also wound up in the bins with the fruit. But the underlying problem of finding labor at the right time and place continued to drive vineyard mechanization.

Several different harvester designs were developed, but in the 1960s, the eponymous Mecca harvester (named after its inventor, Leonard Mecca of Lake Worth, Fla.) became a major breakthrough. The Mecca-Nized harvester was the first mechanical harvester to allow a double row of pivoted paddles or plates (quite like fish scales) to shake loose and collect clusters of grapes as they rolled down toward the center of the device. It was this innovation that allowed the harvesting process to proceed more quickly and efficiently, while at the same time reducing the damage caused by the mechanical action.

Types of Harvesters

When most wine lovers imagine harvesting grapes, they picture skilled vineyard workers gently selecting each and every grape bunch — by hand. In some regions, that’s still the case — for example, Appellation Regulations for Chateauneuf-du-Pape demand hand harvesting.

But, in fact, the vast majority of vineyards use mechanical harvesters. And some artisan producers – especially small-scale growers that focus on high-end wines – now consider it essential to their business.

The first mechanical harvesters, known as “cutter-bar” harvesters, were introduced in the early 1950s. They look a bit like sci-fi grapevine grazing monsters and straddle the rows of vineyard rows, thwacking them with metal rods that shake or strip the ripe berries from their stems (which usually remain on the vine). The grapes then drop onto a conveyor belt, which is towed into a trailer for transportation to the winery. In more sophisticated machines, air blowers may be used to remove lightweight stems, leaves and other foreign material from the berries.

Most modern harvesters, however, have a more refined appearance and rely on hydraulics to operate their various components. They are also able to be adjusted to accommodate different trellis designs, so that they can be used on sloped terrain without damaging the vines.

The most advanced harvesters, including Massoud’s New Holland 9060L Opti-Grape, not only destem the fruit but also sort it in the process. This is important, he says, because the more stems in the fermenting grape must, the less juice yield per ton of harvested fruit. He adds, “Technology is evolving quickly — even at the boutique level.”

A major limitation for any harvester is the amount of time it takes to maneuver, collect and empty the fruit. Estimates, depending on the region, vary widely — some say that a machine can cover an acre in about an hour, while human workers may take five hours or more. In such situations, some growers see no ethical dilemma arising out of replacing humans with machines, particularly when the harvest is expected to last several weeks and many trained workers are needed simultaneously across the entire region.

Advantages

Some winemakers swear by hand picking and others don’t, but it’s fair to say that the mechanisation of harvesting has been one of the most significant advancements in the world of wine over the last 50 years. It’s allowed a greater range of vineyard blocks to be harvested and, therefore, more technically sound wines to reach the market.

The route to mechanical harvesting was set in motion in the 1940s when wartime manpower shortages left American farmers, not just grape growers, with a very limited workforce come harvest time. Women filled the gap, as did labor recruited under the Bracero Program from Mexico.

Early machines tended to mangle both vines and grapes. The forceful shaking caused grape skins to tear and the vibrations often tossed whole bunches of berries and leaves into steel bins to sit and ferment in their own juice. They collected “material other than grapes” – stems, sticks and other debris – as well, which inevitably entered the finished wines.

Today’s harvesters are far more gentle on the fruit and are designed with optical sorting capability to reduce the amount of unripe berries and debris that ends up in the final product. They also have a size filter that can remove smaller berries (e.g. mouldy ones), which would otherwise end up in the final wine.

Another advantage of modern machines is that they can pick large areas quickly, which can be important when weather is threatening and a vintage needs to be brought in on schedule. It is estimated that a single machine can harvest a hectare of grapes in a fraction of the time it takes a team of manual pickers to do so. That can make a big difference to the final quality of the wine.

Also read: The Destemming Machine

Want to read more? Try these books!

A History of the World in 6 Glasses Drink- A Cultural History of Alcohol

Wine Pairing Recommendation

Sources and References

  • Nacho Otero – Muy Historia – ¿Cuándo se inventó la cosechadora mecánica?
  • Pachy Reynoso – mdz On line – Vendimia automática
  • Emma GALLOU – Specialty Brand Communication of CNH Industrial France
  • Andrew Adams – Wines Vines Analytics – Mechanical Grape Harvesters

*    SITEVI is the world’s largest exhibition of equipment and know-how for vine-wine, olive and fruit & vegetable production

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , , By Published On: January 21, 2023Last Updated: February 27, 2024

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!