FoodPaths - December, 2012
Between the Vines, Part 2
Walsh Vineyards Management, Inc.
This month, FoodPaths® presents “Between the Vines, Part 2,” featuring an article from the December, 2012 issue of Wine Business Monthly, one of the largest and most respected publications covering the wine industry. The piece, “Is This the Vineyard of the Future?” explores the disruptive technologies likely to be game-changers not only for the wine industry, but for modern agriculture. It is written by FoodPaths’ principal, Phyllis Gillis.
Click here to read, “The Vineyard of the Future,” as it appears in the December, 2012 issue of Wine Business Monthly.
FoodPaths - November, 2012
Between the Vines, Part 1
Walsh Vineyards Management, Inc.
This month’s FoodPaths “Between the Vines,” takes a first look at the future of a changing wine industry. Part 2 of the story – “Is this the Future of the Vineyard?” – explores the disruptive technologies likely to be game-changers not only for the wine industry, but for modern agriculture. It will be published next month in the December issue of Wine Business Monthly. Through the prism of one company, Walsh Vineyards Management, Inc., the leadership of its co-owners, Brian Shepard and Tim Rodgers, and the integrated, collaborative work of its entire workforce, I spent a year in the vineyards witnessing a new era. FoodPaths is please to share this journey with you.
2012 will be remembered as a near perfect year for the wine industry. After three vintages of excessive rainfall, heat spikes, labor shortages, and a recessionary environment, a new generation of sophisticated, technology-driven equipment -- digital optics, multi-function tractors, hand-held portable electric shears and battery packs, wireless data information systems, and liquid fuel solutions -- emerged to place the wine industry on the cusp of dramatic changes. What this means is a likely shift in the business models of the food and agriculture industry (including wine grapes!). The result: a reduction in operating costs, an improvement in quality, and enhanced sustainability of work lives.
Walsh Vineyards Management, Inc., based in the Napa Valley and Sonoma County for 30 years, owns and operates more machinery and equipment than nearly any other vineyard management company in any wine region in the United States. As a future-forward business, they are addressing the wave of changes in the wine Industry likely to also impact modern global agriculture. The Walsh philosophy however, is not only technology-driven. There is a human factor driving the culture of the company and that is critical to its success.
So often we look for guidance to the leaders of large companies, industry pundits, and sometimes, simply the person with the loudest voice in the room or strongest social media presence. Here are two guys -- Brian and Tim -- from an agricultural “Main Street,” that believe in business from the bottom up. Perhaps because agriculture is so volatile, governed by the laws of nature, from a business perspective Walsh has always looked to the future, planning for changes not yet visible to others. As an extension to many of their winery clients (with Walsh performing farming activities and vineyard management), their roots are (literally) in the ground, with collaborative client relationships fostered day and year out.
Future-forward planning also extends to employees, often recruited by friends and family. There is, however, no dominant “family” under the Walsh umbrella. Virtually every worker begins at the bottom and works up, with skill sets identified early and training provided to be able to take advantage of technological advances well in advance of actual implementation. For instance, the new sophisticated equipment require computer and software programming skills, and Walsh has prepared its team through training over many years. When the technology was ready to launch, so too, was the staff.
A chance conversation with Walsh co-owner Brian Shepard brought me into their world in early 2012. Over the course of the year, and with unprecedented full access, I would document the growing season. (Disclosure: I had a new camera and the opportunity to capture a year of text, photos and videos in a swath of Napa Valley vineyards was way enticing.) Frankly I was not quite sure what I would actually “document.” But… from pruning in the spring to harvest (and the annual harvest party) in the fall, I learned a barrelful about the new era of technologies, and just as critical, I absorbed clues for crafting an integrated, multicultural company with a feel of family and a mandate for professionalism.
My days were not staged walk-throughs, but real time, on-site workdays, often beginning before 6 a.m. and, during harvest, often taking place after midnight. When Mother Nature called (usually via Brian), giving the signal to “go see” something in the vineyards, I went.
* * *
Pruning is one of the most labor intensive aspects of viticulture, and thus, one of the most expensive.
If you have any sort of garden with trees, rose bushes or annual plants, you have probably pruned back dead branches, leaves or flowers. You may even own a pair of conventional pruning shears, a tool common for professionals as well as home gardeners. Even I have a pair of pruning shears.
On the day I entered a vineyard, the crews had already been out for several hours and were covered from head to toe to protect against both the sun and crisp wind of the early spring. The very first thing I noticed was a row of cases stacked against a cleaned row. Nowhere was there any sign of any conventional pruning shear.
What I did see were two crews wearing battery packs operating hand-held electric pruning shears and tying guns to tie down canes to the wires. The men had the electric shears; the women, with smaller hands and more nimble fingers, the tying guns. They looked like ray guns lifted from an outer space cartoon.
A well-pruned vine can increase the amount and quality of the fruit. Pruning, one of the “hand vine” tasks in the vineyard, has long carried great respect for field workers that are skilled pruners. The way a vine is pruned maximizes exposure to sunlight, air circulation, and mitigates disease and pest infestation. Pruning “trains” the structure of the vine. This affects the number of berry clusters produced. The more clusters, the more fruit. The more fruit, the more wine.
Pruning is also one of the most labor intensive aspects of viticulture, and thus, one of the most expensive. A skilled pruner is a happy, invaluable worker. A skilled pruner with Repetitive Motion Syndrome (RMI), not so much.
Walsh co-owner Tim Rodgers explained that sustainability, not speed, was the goal. With thousands of acres to prune each year, any injury means a team member is “out for the season.” The electric shears and tying guns provide improved working conditions through increased physical comfort, less injuries, and a happier workforce.
As the workers bantered back and forth among the rows as they worked, I understood immediately that the impact was the way that technology had been adopted and embraced, resulting in a different way of working.
* * *
Unless you are deep inside a vineyard, or the crews are working close to a road, it is often rare that an outsider is able to gain a working knowledge of the day-today vineyard tasks critical to the grape growing cycle afer pruning. Chopping, cultivating, disking, weed control, and soil conservation, collectively known as “Floor Management,” play an important role in passive frost protection, control of erosion, and soil enrichment. Floor management is critical to keeping the soil between the rows healthy – and in turn, the vines robust. Josef Shepard was committed to making sure that I understood this.
“Tomorrow. 8 a.m. Big Orange Tractor,” read the text. It was on this day that I learned a tractor is not a tractor. Big Orange is a “Multifunction Tractor,” meaning that it can be used, with the addition of function-specific implements, year round, performing much of the floor management usually done by conventional tractors. With its on-board software, visual monitors, digital cameras, LCD light systems and independent hydraulic sensors on each wheel controlling height and leveling, this machine is at the forefront of the agricultural technology revolution.
Big Orange pulled up and we climbed aboard. As we rode along, Josef explained that after bud break, when the soils were dry, it was important to cut down some of the cover crop (red oats, mixed with an organic soil builder of bell beans, legumes, and barley), to concentrate the nutrients in the vines. Disking and cultivating would soon follow, cleaning and turning the rows, and forcing the vines to draw from the nutrients in the soils. Soil moisture is monitored from a master irrigation system, showing “what the vines are doing.”
Like most progressive vineyards, Walsh moved from pencils and paper to a variety of PDA’s, with workers collecting data in the vineyards on an ongoing basis. If you can use a smart phone, you can input data, is the company’s mantra. Their Wireless Data Information System, based on a mobile platform, maps every block, layout, vine spacing, irrigation set, pump, and wine machine. At the start of each season, workers input phenology, irrigation information, fertilizer, levels, pests and disease. This is repeated during the various stages of the growth cycle. The information is relayed back to the Walsh web portal directly from the fields, providing real time information during the season and end of year analysis following harvest. “The old timers could actually walk through a vineyard, eyeball the vines, count the clusters over a set of linear feet, do a quick calculation in their head and pretty much tell you the size of the crop,” Josef explained. “I started counting clusters when I was 15. Today we have sophisticated data systems to estimate the crop size and tonnage.”
The other major vineyard activity rarely seen from outside is Canopy Management which takes place between bloom and veraison when the vine is developing its foliage. Canopy management encompasses: Suckering to manage shoot growth, Shoot Positioning, Leafing, and Fruit Dropping. A mixture of hand and machine work is used to perform these tasks.
Initially the canopy management crews were curious about why I was around. “¿Quién es ese?” Soon the question “Who is that?” turned to ongoing amusement over my constant presence. On occasion, a playful game of cat and mouse took place behind the expanding vines. Could I capture their image as they scurried from row to row? Who had the fastest reflexes? Not one person ever dropped pace, grace and professionalism as they worked and I attempted to zero in on them. I took it as a challenge to my credibility to try and keep up with them. They were shoot positioning, training the shoots to grow vertically upward in a manner that displayed most of the leaves to sunlight, and thinning any shoots not attached to the cane or wiring.
Most of the time the crew was standing on slopes, with cultivated dry dirt in the middle of each row, and slippery leaves underfoot as excess foliage was pulled and left for later clean-up. I still have no idea how the team knew which shoots to tuck and position properly on the trellis wires or how they were able to balance on the churned up dirt while moving through the rows so quickly. Eventually “La Senora” became invisible as they concentrated on what they had to do, and I concentrated on what I was trying to do. Fortunately, the time I slipped and fell hard on the rough dirt, none of their cell phones were pointed at me.
* * *
Soon I started to show up alone, becoming part of the scenery at vineyards where work was in progress. Such was the case the day a crew was planting new vines. It’s not easy to remove an entire vineyard, but many wineries or vineyard owners do replant, usually removing all the vines in a given block, letting the soil rest for a year or two, and then replanting new rootstock or new varietals. Many grape growers took advantage of the opportunity to revitalize their vineyards during the recent downturn and replant acreage rather than drop fruit or transfer crushed fruit to bulk aggregators. A new crop is usually brought to harvest three to five years after initial planting.
As the vines mature and the berries begin to turn into fruit, leaves are pulled in the fruit zone to increase exposure to sunlight and air circulation. Crews always work on the morning sunlight side of the vines; a method that limits sunburn from intense afternoon sun. The goal is to let the dappled sun into the foliage and open up canopy which also prevents mildew and Botrytis.
Already in use are mechanical leafing implements that attach to either conventional or Multi-Function Tractors. Vineyard professionals and winemakers that use the mechanized alternative swear that there is no difference in the ultimate condition of the grapes between hand and mechanical leafing.
As harvest approaches and the grapes begin to change color (i.e. veraison), crews “drop fruit” that is less robust than other clusters on the vine, concentrating nutrients to the grapes that will soon be harvested.
* * *
Harvest in a wine region may be the most fantasy-driven illusion conjured by wineries in any country, anywhere in the world. In reality, harvest is a round-the-clock, time sensitive race against ripeness, weather and labor availability. Quite simply, harvest is exceptionally hard work undertaken in a short period of time to bring grapes to the winemakers who will turn them into liquid gold. With the arrival or power boom lights, harvest now largely takes place at night to take advantage of cooler temperatures. Vineyards during a night harvest are pitch black, but for the rows that are illuminated by the boom lights. This is what a vineyard in the dark looks like.
It’s one thing to see how the technology-based equipment is changing the way wine grapes are grown. It’s another to fully understand how the human factor remains the critical element in bringing those grapes to harvest. At Walsh, as at many wineries, harvest crews are scheduled down to 15 minute segments, with locations and positions assigned on a daily, and often hourly basis. Once the crews are checked in and warmed up, a finely choreographed dance begins. Once a grape hits optimum ripeness, a decision made sometimes by the winemaker, sometimes in collaboration with the viticulturist, it is “go-go-go” to get those grapes to the winery for fermentation.
Walsh’s Towle Merritt, in a pre-harvest briefing session explained that no one ever expected the elite wineries of the Napa Valley to adopt mechanical harvesting and sorting for premium grapes, but many have done so. Some prefer a mix of hand harvest and digital optic sorting, but whatever the choice, it is clear that the technologies are making a major impact, particularly since harvest costs can range from 30% - 50% of a wineries today budget.
After watching the crew engage in their pre-nightly warm-up, I boarded a Multi-Function Tractor and from atop the cab 12 feet up, tracked three post-midnight harvests during early and mid-September. Armed with my camera, a headlight strapped on my forehead and under the watchful eyes of Juan Manual, my “handler,” the driver revved up and we set off, his job picking grapes and mine videotaping what I could as we sailed through the rows. The mammoth machine enables 2-4 people to do an entire harvest.
I thought the driver, a young man, was going to have a heart attack with me up there. The drivers that work these mammoth machines are skilled operators, often trained over many years. The skill set required to master these machines include software and video monitor expertise, joy stick agility and the ability to operate multiple levers simultaneously. When I hit the ground, on day two, I overheard Juan Manual, my wonderful and amused handler, call someone on his cell. “She’s on the ground,” he said, and hung up.
As Juan Manual walked me to my car through the pitch black rows (I would still be there, lost in the middle of the vineyard had he not done so), he asked what my family thought about my adventures.
“They’re not all that interested,” I said.
“You have children?” he asked.
“One son, one daughter-in-law, two grandchildren.”
“What does your son think you do all day?” he asked, perplexed.
“I don’t know. I guess he thinks I just putter around the house.”
“Ay! Buenas Tardes, Señora.”
I could hear Juan Manual laughing as he turned back into the dark.
Seeing first-hand how this amazing new equipment works – from the Multi-Function Tractor itself, outfitted with sophisticated picking heads, to digital optic sorters on-site in vineyards -- the operative word is simply “wow.” Vineyard managers, winemakers and staff watching, echoing my “wow” as grapes, programmed to sort out imperfect fruit, flew through the sorters and came out flawless. Winemakers using this equipment agree that there is absolutely no difference between hand harvests and machine harvests with this sophisticated machinery. Compared to sorting still done by hand, the digital sorters are the real fantasy during harvest.
* * *
Every harvest needs a harvest party and the folks at Walsh know how to throw a very good one. They have been doing so for many years, and for 15 years, the main dish, Adobo por la Birrria de Jalisco, has been prepared by Federico Gonzalez and Antonio Diaz. Fortunately, the harvest party was scheduled the week of the World Series, with the San Francisco Giants playing the Detroit Tigers. Both men are Giants fans, and we bonded first over baseball, and subsequently over bones, a critical component of the Birria recipe. The FoodPaths section, Food Secrets from the Fields, features Adobo por la Birria de Jalisco, straight from the Walsh kitchen. I cannot verify that Federico and Antonio did not slip in additional family secret ingredients when I was not around, but I know the ingredients are fresh since I followed Federico to the Boca Farm gardens directly behind the Walsh warehouse where he pulled fresh cilantro for the salsa to accompany the dish.
* * *
But what of the future? For Walsh, the next generation is already working up the ladder. Four guys and a girl are working hard to preserve the culture, the character, and the commitment. When – and IF – Brian and Tim decide to kick back and drink the wines from the grapes they have had a large hand in growing over three decades, the future is in good hands. Here is look at some of them:
Left to right: Towle Merritt, Rolando Sanchez,
Josef Shepard and Ruben Flores
Left to right, Phyllis with Walsh CFO Vicki Thorpe.
Play the 2 videos below to get your own bird’s eye view of a night harvest
from the top of a Pellenc 8590 tractor and on the ground digital optic sorter.