The use of robots and automation have long been considered inappropriate in winemaking and were forgiven only for producers of cheap and mass wines. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the winemakers to give up the principles, when people were sorely lacking in the grape harvest.
Three minutes to get ready
Despite the fact that agriculture has long made friends with robotics, winemakers around the world have still actively resisted its implementation. Many of them do not trust grape harvesting machines, believing that they will certainly damage the berries, thereby ruining the wine. And, for example, in French Champagne, automated grape harvesting is completely prohibited at the legislative level.
But even such a conservative industry is forced to change under the onslaught of circumstances. Winemakers, both in Europe and the United States, find it increasingly difficult to find workers to process their crops. This problem became especially acute during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the borders of the countries were closed and migrants, who traditionally worked at wineries, this time could not come. As for the locals, even at the best of times they were not inclined to agree to such hard and low-paid work.
According to the head of the Tuscan cooperative winery Cantina Sociale Colli Fiorentini Ritano Baragli, the situation with the search for workers has deteriorated gradually from year to year, but last year was the worst in half a century that he worked at the winery.
His words were confirmed by The Wall Street Journal and the owner of another winery in Tuscany, Mirco Capelli.
In the end, both managers decided to use automatic grape pickers, and both were pleased with the result. According to Mr. Baraglia, last year the share of machines in the harvesting of grapes at the wineries of the cooperative increased by 20%. As noted by Mr. Capelli, his workers with the help of machines managed to harvest the entire crop in just 10 days instead of the usual 18, spending about three minutes on each row.
According to Philippe Astouan, director of the French manufacturer Pellenc, which also produces grape harvesting machines, demand for them has grown by 5-10% in recent years, but last year it increased by 20% at once.
Robots and nothing more
In Oregon, the Willamette Valley Vineyards has hired a team of scientists from Saga Robotics at Cornell University, Oregon State University and the US Department of Agriculture to create a robot that will help fight a fungus that can destroy an entire grape crop – powdery mildew. The robot was named Will-e, similar to the Disney cartoon Wall-E robot.
“Using an autonomous robot to apply UV light to vines allows us to protect grapes without the use of fungicides,” said Jim Bernau, founder and CEO of Willamette Valley Vineyards. “Powdery mildew can devastate crops by increasing acidity and reducing anthocyanins. Deploying a robot to combat mold is a great opportunity to eliminate the use of a fungicide that has negative effects on all forms of life. “
According to Mr. Bernau, Will-e cost the winery $ 75 thousand. But the company is confident that this expensive purchase will pay off rather quickly: “It is autonomous, which means that labor costs are reduced. You don’t have to pay for chemicals. And eliminating the use of a tractor to spray chemicals will further reduce our carbon footprint and reduce soil compression in the vineyard. ” So far, Will-e is an experimental model, but developers can enter the market with it in 2022.
Nicolas-Jay Winery, also located in Oregon, has decided to use a self-contained electric tractor from startup Monarch Tractor in its production. “We hope to get them in January or February,” said co-founder Jay Bober. “They are now handcrafted, prototypes are being tested to troubleshoot. The production line will be launched in November. “
The winery will pay about $ 50 thousand for such a tractor. Its advantages are autonomous operation, removal of weeds, collection and transmission of data on the state of the crop. For comparison, according to the data of Monarch itself, on average, a diesel tractor costs from $ 35 thousand to $ 70 thousand on the market. At the same time, its owner will constantly spend money on fuel, moreover, it is far from the most environmentally friendly. The electric tractor will emit 53 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year less than its diesel competitor. Therefore, we are confident in Nicolas-Jay, the benefits of technological progress are obvious.