Are Drones The Future Of Winemaking In Napa Valley?

Drones for vineyards

[Editor’s Note: Renteria Vineyard Management uses drones to search for pests, disease and irrigation leaks.]

This post originally appeared on http://www.forbes.com/sites/cathyhuyghe/2016/08/31/are-drones-the-future-of-grape-growing-in-napa-valley-three-perspectives-on-the-labor-shortage.

Oscar Renteria of Renteria Vineyard Management knows that a labor shortage isn’t just pending at some point in the future. It’s already upon him. Here are two realities about the difficulty of growing grapes in the Napa Valley: the farming itself, and finding people to do the farming.

It’s hard (read back-breaking) work. There are other (read better-paying) options. Turnover is high, which imposes extra demands on the people who are left.

The difficulty is compounded by an aging workforce and fewer men and women of the younger generation entering this line of work who would replenish the labor supply.

Objectively speaking, and considering all of these factors, the deck looks stacked against the future of farming grapes in the Napa Valley.

But with so much at stake, including Napa’s significant contribution to the California wine industry’s $114.1 billion impact on the U.S. economy, vineyard management companies are digging in their heels and, at the same time, nimbly adapting to the changing dynamic of farm workers and grape growing today and in the future.

Here are three perspectives from Napa on managing the shift.

Machination

Oscar Renteria of Renteria Vineyard Management knows that a labor shortage isn’t just pending at some point in the future. It’s already upon him.

Renteria gauges the shortage around him by the work that he sees being done, and not being done, to the vines. That includes labor-intensive but necessary work throughout the year, like shoot thinning, canopy management, and green harvesting.

His reaction to the shortage – and preparation for the future – takes several forms, including the development of new, highly-sensitive machinery for the vineyard that can minimize the demand for manual labor yet still meet the stringent demands set by winery owners.

Renteria’s staff also pilot drones over the acreage under their care, scouting for pests, disease, and irrigation leaks. The drones can also be preprogrammed to fly an itinerary and send photographs back to its base computer.

The idea is to do more with less labor.

Are drones and new vineyard machines the future of grape growing? Not exactly. But they are going to help cover some slack as labor threatens to become even more scarce.

Higher Pay

Machination, however, isn’t always an option. Some terrain, particularly at mountain sites or with old, closely-spaced, untrellised, or irregular vines, simply does not accommodate machinery. The work is either done by hand or it isn’t done at all.

Mike Wolfe, whose vineyard management company farms some of the most prestigious and demanding sites in Napa, recognizes that they’d be kidding themselves if they said that the labor issue isn’t about money.

Wolfe, who was named last year’s Napa Valley Grower of the Year and is highly respected for his crews’ production of some of Napa’s ultra premium wines, implements what sounds like an unusual incentive program: before harvest the company lays off about half of their crew, yet they also pay high wages (if not the highest in the Valley) during harvest. The best workers get to stay and work the harvest when they make a lot of money in a relatively short amount of time. Wolfe’s company farms about 900 acres; they employed about 200 workers this summer, and for harvest, they’ll keep a core of 70 to 80 of them. That incentive system serves as leverage during the rest of the year, when workers can “prove” themselves.

Another variable in the equation for a vineyard management company like Wolfe’s is finding the right group of clients who are going to pay for that caliber of work. High-caliber work leads to selling grapes (and wines) at a higher price point, which leads to the land becoming even more valuable. It’s a continuous cycle of upping the ante, and it has vineyard workers at its core.

People-Centric Approach

Employee retention strategies in Napa wine country mirror strategies elsewhere and in other industries. Offer competitive benefits that fit worker needs. Provide perks. Promote from within. Cultivate open communication. Offer financial rewards.

But, especially in Napa, it seems to come down to this: employers need to be known as a desirable place to work when “desirable” priorities include paying well and – crucially – not leaving your workers in the lurch.

For Pete Richmond, founder of the Silverado Farming Company, this people-centric, “no lurch policy” has taken a variety of forms over the years, from providing extra financial protection for a family whose primary breadwinner is injured to encouraging educational pursuits among the children of workers.

There’s no standard procedure, Richmond admits, and he manages the needs of each opportunity on a case-by-case basis. But generating loyalty among employees must be front-of-mind in order to preserve the future of the business.

It also helps to demonstrate that, at the end of the day, there is a future to this grape growing business, despite the odds against it.

Cathy Huyghe is the co-founder of Enolytics and the author of Hungry for Wine: Seeing the World through the Lens of a Wine Glass. Find her online at cathyhuyghe.com, on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Cathy Huyghe is the co-founder of Enolytics and the author of Hungry for Wine: Seeing the World through the Lens of a Wine Glass. Find her online at cathyhuyghe.com, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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