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Letters from Lodi

An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.

Randy Caparoso
 
September 12, 2022 | Randy Caparoso

On the work, and people, going into the hand picking of Lodi's vineyards

2022 Zinfandel among ancient vine Zinfandel (planted in 1889) in Lodi's Jessie's Grove.

The prevalent image of the wine grape harvest in Lodi, as in other winegrowing regions around the world, is of people working their way through jungles of leafy vines with curved knives or shears, picking off whole clusters of grapes one at a time, entirely by hand. 

This is despite the fact that today, most vineyards in regions such as Lodi are now picked by mechanical harvesters. Picking by machines manned by just one or two operators is more than five times faster than hand picking by crews of six to eight people. Thus, the cost of machine picking is well less than half of hand picking, and usage of fuel and carbon footprint is not much higher, since hand harvesting still requires tractors to pull bins weighing over 2 tons when filled by hand pickers.

Sorting out "MOG" (material other than grapes) during old vine Zinfandel harvest in Cherryhouse Vineyard, on the west side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA.

All the same, there is still a lot of hand harvesting done in Lodi. Why? Because machine harvesting requires vines to be trained on trellises held together by wires—mechanical harvesters work by shaking wires to separate individual berries from their stems. 

However, there are still thousands of acres of grapes in Lodi that are cultivated on free-standing "head trained" or "vertical cordon" trained vines, held up only by stakes. These type of vines cannot be picked by machine; they require hand picking.

Machine harvesting of Grenache grapes in Lodi's Abba Vineyard with the use of a Pellenc Optimal Grape Harvester, operated by one person (in this photo, owner/grower Phil Abba), and able to pick as well as sort each individual berry right in the field.

Many of Lodi's trellised vineyards are, in fact, still meticulously harvested by hand because vineyard owners prefer the human touch. Acquiesce Vineyards, for one, is an example of a small estate (just 16 planted acres) that is primarily trellised, yet picked entirely by hand. Grower/owner Sue Tipton, a meticulous winemaker, would have it no other way. 

Michael David Winery is an example of a much larger winery and grower that picks all of its grapes by hand, despite the fact that well over half of their vineyards (over 1,000 acres) are trellised, and could be machined picked if they wanted to. The Phillips family—who own Michael David and have been farming in Lodi since the late 1860s—strongly believe that their vineyards are better sustained, and the quality of their wines better served, by hand harvesting. Many growers would disagree with this practice, but that's the way the Phillips operate.

September 2, 2022 harvest of Bechthold Vineyard, Lodi's oldest vineyard (25 acres of Cinsaut planted in 1886), farmed by the Phillips family of Michael David Winery, with grapes going to over a dozen different wineries.

Three harvests ago we got an insider's look into the business of grape picking through a conversation with Alex Lopez, one of the managers of Galvan Farming Services, owned by Mario Galvan. Many of Lodi's vineyard and winery owners rely on Galvan Farming Services for their labor throughout the year, and especially during the harvest months, lasting from late July to the end of October.

Coming from a family that has worked in Lodi vineyards for three generations. Lopez himself has worked as a vineyard manager for Bokisch Vineyards for nearly 13 years, and for the Wetmore family's Round Valley Ranches for a year before joining Galvan Farming Services in 2019. 

Galvan Farming Services manager Alex Lopez, a veteran Lodi winegrower.

From our conversation with Lopez:

“Grape picking, anyone can see, is a real art. It’s a skill not everyone can do. I always say, it’s like The Karate Kid, where you learn by going wax-on, wax-off. The better you get at it, the more rewarding the work.”

“If I were to describe my own involvement in the business, I would say it is mostly just answering the phone whenever someone needs help, and Mario can draw from on a pool of well over 100 people living mostly in Lodi, but also in Stockton, Galt or as far off as Sacramento. I’d say that at least 95% of our people live in the 209 area code.

2022 hand harvesting of trellised Viognier in Lodi's Acquiesce Vineyards.

“Labor shortage these days is such that we can pick and choose our clients, and so our preference is not to work with one-offs, or companies who can offer just occasional work. We prefer vineyard management companies that need help all year-round—pruning in the winter, shoot thinning in the spring, dropping fruit and removing leaves in the summer. 

"We supply labor to a lot of local companies. I still have a lot of connections with Bokisch Vineyards [which up until recently farmed over 2,000 acres in Lodi] and Round Valley Ranches [who manage vineyards for wineries such as Oak Farm Vineyards, Acquiesce Winery and Jessie’s Grove]. We also do some work with Machado family [R-N-R Vineyard], Ben and Madelyn Kolber [KG Vineyard Management], Gregg Lewis [Dancing Fox Vineyards], Keith Watts Vineyards, Phillips Farms [Michael David Winery], and a few others.

Hand picking of 2022 Grüner Veltliner in Mokelumne Glen Vineyards on the east side of the Mokelumne River-Lodi AVA.

“The big advantage for picking crews who work with the same vineyards all year-round is, when it comes time for harvest, they’re already familiar with the grapevines. We always tell them that when they do a good job earlier in the year, the job of picking is so much easier because you have higher quality fruit, and the plants are groomed so that they’re nice and clean, with all the leaves removed from the fruit zones, which makes it faster and easier to pick. 

Close-up of 2022 Grüner Veltliner in Mokelumne River-Lodi's Mokelumne Glen Vineyards.

“And the faster and easier to pick, the more money you make since they get paid primarily by the ton. On the other hand, when vineyards are not properly maintained there’s more chance for injuries. You can get hurt when you have to fight through leaves and canes to get at the fruit, and of course, these vineyards are slower to pick. Usually, when we know we are working with vineyards that haven’t been properly managed, we’ll negotiate for a higher price. Our priority is to always make sure our guys are making their money. That’s how we are able to keep the large numbers of people needed to supply our farming services. 

2022 old vine Zinfandel harvest in Schmiedt's 1902 Vineyard on the east side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA.

“Typically, at least for the picking crews coming out of Lodi, it’s about 50% couples, husband/wife teams, who work in teams of 8 people. For fields with trellised vines, each crew will pick 4 rows at a time, 2 people in charge of picking each row, with the tractor pulling the macro-bins going down the middle rows.

“One person can pick 2 tons in 5 hours, depending on the grape type. In vineyards where they’re usually filling half-ton macro-bins, each picker will get paid $50 or as much as $70 per every macro-bin they fill. Ideally, each 8-man crew is able to pick about 33 macro-bins a day, adding up to 16 and a half tons. Even making our minimum charge of $50/bin, divided by 8 members in a crew this means each person earns $206.25 for about 5 hours of work. That’s approximately $41.25/hour. 

Field sorting of each Zinfandel cluster picked and loaded into half-ton macro-bins in Schmiedt's 1902 Vineyard during the 2022 harvest.

“We’ll also supply at least 2 sorters to pick out all the MOG [i.e., ‘material other than grapes’] at the macro-bins or gondolas, and so the vineyard owner or winery gets a high quality, clean pick.

“There are cases where vineyard managers are asking for a more delicate pick, or more rigorous sorting—they might not want any clusters with signs of rot or red “water berry.” In those cases, they’ll want the pickers to take their time, and so we may have to negotiate an hourly pay. For field work during the year, like pruning and leaf pulling, the going rate in Lodi is at least $12.50/hour. But during the harvest, our pickers obviously prefer to get paid by the ton so they can make as much as $30 to $40/hour. 

2022 Chenin blanc picker in Palmero Family Vineyard, located in Lodi's Alta Mesa appellation.

“It is true, these days, that in regions like Napa Valley or Sonoma County the going rate for farm labor is as much as twice that of Lodi, and we do take a few jobs over there. But by and large, our people would rather stick close to home. For many of them, a higher hourly pay is not quite worth their time, or the danger of commuting all the way to Napa. 

2022 ancient vine Zinfandel harvest in Jessie's Grove, on the west side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA.

“Grape picking is hard work. You may ask, why do people do it? Of course, only certain people are willing to do it. You notice that fewer and fewer of the new generation of kids are in the fields. Young people, even of Mexican descent, are just not into it. They’re into technology, or work where they can make more money for less effort. But the ones who are still doing it—especially all the old-timers you still see out there—they say they love it. I know because I ask them all the time. A lot of them say it’s a good way to get away from what they normally do, or to spend time outdoors.

2022 picking crew just before going to work in Jessie's Grove's oldest Zinfandel block (planted in 1889) with owner/grower Greg Burns (second from left) and Marchelle owner/winemaker Greg La Follette (in overalls).

“I know one guy who normally does work as an independent contractor, where he makes a lot more money. One day I saw him out with the picking crews. I went up and asked, ‘what brings you here?’ The story he gave is that he lives and works here by himself, since his family is in Mexico. But being with a picking crew, he said, he can literally ‘smell’ the food and women—things he can’t smell when working by himself—and of course there’s the talking, the singing, the music, sharing lunch with the crews. With some of the crews, especially the ones with a lot of couples, it can be a soap opera, which I guess is fun in that way.

Harvesting 2022 Zinfandel from the extremely long spurs of 133-year-old, own-rooted vine in Jessie's Grove.

“In other words it’s social, not just a way to make money. Of course, many of our farm laborers have other jobs. But picking grapes, they can make their $150 by the end of the morning and still get to their other jobs. A lot of our jobs involve night picking, and so ladies can go to work at 9:00 PM, finish by 2:00 AM, go home, wake up the kids, fix them their lunch and send them off to school, and maybe go off to work somewhere else."

More images from the 2022 Lodi grape harvest thus far...

2022 harvest morning among gnarly 133-year-old Zinfandel in Jessie's Grove, on the west side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA.

Brightly pink-colored Flame Tokay mixed with ancient vine Carignan in Jessie's Grove's Royal Tee block (133-year-old Zinfandel mixed with equally old Carignan, MIssion, Flame Tokay and Black Prince vines).

2022 Viognier harvest in Acquiesce Vineyards.

Acquiesce Winery assistant winemaker Christina Lopez thrilled to receive the estate's first pick of 2022 (Viognier).

Blue/reddish "gray" color of Pinot gris grapes (which produces white wines commonly sold as Pinot Grigio) at Van Ruiten Family Winery.

Teeming tub of Zinfandel, weighing at least 35 pounds, hoisted by picker in Jessie's Grove.

Early morning sun peeking through ancient vine Zinfandel in Schmiedt's 1902 Vineyard on the east side of Lodi's Mokelumne River appellation.

Close-up of picking of ancient vine Zinfandel hanging low to the ground in Schmiedt's 1902 Vineyard.

Iconic Wines owner/winemaker Birk O'Halloran (left) with Galen Schmiedt, who farms his family's 1902 Zinfandel block on the east side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA.

At m2 Wines, owner/winemaker Layne Montgomery looks over incoming Zinfandel picked earlier in the morning at Schmiedt's 1902 Vineyard.

Final sorting of 2022 Zinfandel from Schmiedt's 1902 Vineyard before destemming and fermentation at m2 Wines winery.

Laurie Van Dyke, a third generation Lodi labor contractor and owner of Cadena Ag Solutions, with the 2022 Mokelumne Glen Vineyards Grüner Veltliner harvest.

In Steacy Ranch (Zinfandel first planted in 1907), Turley Wine Cellars winemaker Tegan Passacqua shows off a typically small cluster from this old vine planting to visiting popular wine influencer Amanda McCrossin (@SommVivant on Instagram and somm_vivant on TikTok).

Albariño grapes on August 2022 harvest morning in Bokisch Vineyards' Terra Alta Vineyard, located in Lodi's Clements Hills AVA.

In Jessie's Grove, the Sonoma-based Marchelle Wines owner/winemaker Greg La Follette bends a knee in homage to a 133-year-old Flame Tokay, the fruit of which La Follette will co-ferment with Zinfandel from this same vineyard.

As the sun rises in Süss Vineyard in Lodi's Clements Hills AVA, grape pickers calling it a day after a pre-dawn harvest of old vine Zinfandel that began before 4:00 AM.

Rous Vineyard owner/grower Craig Rous (right), who personally supervises the annual harvest of his Zinfandel block originally planted in 1909, with McCay Cellars owner/winemaker Mike McCay.

Boots and 2022 hand picked Zinfandel in Rous Vineyard.

Taking a break from the mad rush of 2022's early harvest—with grapes such as Zinfandel, Albariño and Chardonnay coming in all at once—Harney Lane Winery owner/growers Kyle and Jorja Lerner show off wines and grape clusters (displaying in the foreground, left to right), Primitivo, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah).

Close-up of old vine Zinfandel just picked in Rous Vineyard on the east side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA.

Just-picked Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut, from Lodi's oldest vineyard, headed down W. Woodbridge Rd. to be loaded onto trucks.

Grape sorter in the Perlegos family's Cherryhouse Vineyard on the west side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA.

 

 

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