Vineyard Work

Labor Issues in the Russian River Valley

 Gantz Family Vineyards, ready for harvest 2017.

Gantz Family Vineyards, ready for harvest 2017.

The labor concern has been a topic in Russian River Valley for a while. Lately, it’s been a pressing issue due to the aging of the existing labor force, Mexico’s improved economy, and the current political climate. We're hearing stories about crews being overbooked and having to leave a field before it's completely picked. In other circumstances, the harvest takes longer and the crew isn’t available at the time the next field is scheduled.

We attended the Russian River Valley Winegrowers annual Paulée dinner last week (which was super fun!) and everyone's talking about the current heat wave, which is rushing harvest, and the lack of labor. Winemakers are saying "pick now" and there can be up to a week delay before it actually gets done. That can dramatically change the ripeness and amount of sugar built up in the grapes, as you can expect. Plus the danger of sunburn and predation is higher once you've raised the bird netting and leafed to make picking more efficient. All those ripe grapes are exposed to weather, birds, raccoons, opossums, turkeys and whoever is interested in eating the delicious fruit of our labor.  

Clay and I are lucky with our small space, but even four acres is more than the two of us could do in a night. We'll be out there with the crew at any rate. They work so quickly and methodically, but don’t have the time to get every single available cluster, many which are hiding behind leaves. Remember, it’s dark out at 2:00 a.m.! We follow behind them to pick up what they missed.  

This year we might end up doing even more, leaving the talented crews to do the most important job. We might be lifting the bird netting and leafing by ourselves. That was fun last year and I think I have a pretty good handle on it, but it’s still a lot of work for two people who haven’t seen our 20’s for a long while. We just need to be prepared to work quickly and efficiently to prepare the vineyard for harvesting. Too bad all the grandkids are in school!  

There is more talk in the local industry about mechanical harvesters. People are discussing the possibilities of co-ops, leasing from vineyard managers and other creative ways of sharing one of these very expensive pieces of equipment. Of course, they still need operators and obviously can only do one vineyard at a time. If three vineyards are all told to harvest at the same time by three different winemakers…well, you can see the problem. Owners of smaller vineyards like ours may find mechanical harvesting a real challenge and most people would prefer to harvest by hand, but in the current climate, we may not have any options.

We don’t talk about politics much in these blogs, but we encourage the federal government to get its act together and pass reasonable immigration reform that allows for the workforce that we in the agricultural community rely on. Putting politics before practicality is a recipe for disaster. Some states have tried to farm without immigrant labor and it’s been a calamity.

In an LA Times piece written by Russ Parsons, he states "According to the latest statistics compiled by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the state produces almost half of all the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the country, as well as a whopping share of the livestock and dairy.” It’s not realistic, in fact virtually impossible, to farm it without immigrant labor. These are not just strong back and willing hands, but individuals with the knowledge, expertise and experience base upon which we so strongly rely.

We need to set aside partisan politics to come up with a solution that works.

Bird Netting Revisited

"Because we’re a young vineyard, we haven’t had to address the issue of wine-grape predators. Turkeys, squirrels, possums, and raccoons are pests but Jake is pretty good at spotting them and getting them on the run.”

Oh, how young we were... The above is a line from a blog we wrote in 2014 about bird netting. A year later, we started using netting ourselves.  

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And now, we’ve learned wine-grape predators are out at night and early, early morning, long before Jake rouses himself. In fact, there’s so much activity that when we take Jake out at night for his last “walk”, we have him on a leash. Otherwise he would chase after anything in the vineyard, with some occasionally unhappy results (Skunk!).

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Last year, the 4 to 5 rows closest to a long wall of cyprus trees were decimated by local fauna whose little hands picked fruit out between the small openings of the bird netting. We’re guessing primarily possums and raccoons. They don’t range further in, as it leaves them too exposed to other predators. But then, they didn’t need to, feeding on the ripening fruit closest to their hideout. So this year we draped those rows with a different style of netting that hopefully will discourage their nighttime raids. Of course, Jake had to check it out to be sure it was going to work. We’ll keep our fingers crossed!

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Keeping Track of Your Gopher Traps

Keeping Track of Your Gopher Traps

One issue that we have is that while our gopher traps, called The Gophinator, are quite hardy, they do disappear as predators drag them away with the dead gophers. Attaching a length of cable to our traps and connecting them to the ground with a flag or stake allow us to identify where they are and keep the predators from taking off with them.

Inventive Hedging at Gantz Family Vineyards

Inventive Hedging at Gantz Family Vineyards

We’re a confusing size for a family-owned vineyard. At just over four acres, we feel we’re small enough to do a lot of the work ourselves. On the other hand, when something needs to be done to each and every of the 7,146 plants, the task seems daunting. Our most recent task is the job of hedging the vines.

Bird Problems in the Vineyard

it seems that our love and attention has caused havoc in the vineyard. By making sure there is food and water for our feathered friends, they have decided that this is the place to be. And just about the time Kosta Browne wants our fruit, when the grapes are ripe with sugars, the birds have decided they want our grapes, too.

A Vineyard: Where the Work Is Never Done

Every Friday evening, we try to just sit back and enjoy the beauty of the vineyard and appreciate all the hard work we’ve put into it over the last week. We’re often inspired to take a stroll through the vineyard with Jake by our side. We’re finished for the afternoon…we think.