Like it or not, vineyard automation is coming

This week, the well-respected English winemaker Charles Palmer posted a video and a brief description of his experience of machine harvesting. Inevitably, not all of the reaction was positive. Robert Joseph was prompted to offer a few thoughts of his own.

Charles Palmer harvesting his English grapes
Charles Palmer harvesting his English grapes

The world is struggling with a supply chain crisis because there are not enough truck drivers.

Care homes across the planet are short of nurses.

Both of these situations have, of course, been brought to a head by the pandemic, but the underlying issues were already there to be seen in 2019.

Not enough people want to leave their homes and families for days at a time to sleep in their cabs and live on a diet of fast food.

And too few see much appeal in spoon feeding and emptying the bedpans of elderly dementia sufferers.

So, over the next few years, we will see the arrival of self-driven vehicles and robot-carers.

Men and women who live in centrally heated apartments in London, Paris and New York who’ve never had to care for anyone to whom they weren’t related, or sat behind the wheel of anything larger than the van they rented when they moved home, will publicly lament these turns of affairs.

Just as some in the wine world lament the growing use of machine harvesters.

None of this last group have felt the stress of not knowing if the team of Portuguese, Turkish or Mexican pickers they used last year is going to be available. Or how to assemble a new one. Or being able to pay the wages that have risen faster than the price anyone is prepared to pay for the wine. None has stared at the weather forecasts, trying to calculate how to manually harvest the grapes quickly enough to miss the storms that are predicted. Or how to hold back the pickers until the fruit has finally ripened.

If they had, they wouldn’t be as glib in their dismissal of machines that can do the job quickly and efficiently, at night as well as during the day.

The Chinese understood this long ago when they developed special tractors that straddle the vines after every harvest covering them in the earth that will provide protection against the harsh winters suffered by most of their wine regions. Even in a country where labour was plentiful and cheap, getting human beings to do this kind of work was too hard.

Vineyard automation is coming, like those trucks and robot-carers. Maybe not on the steepest slopes of the Mosel or Rhône, or the tiniest plots of the Côte d’Or, but just about everywhere else. Dismissing it is like trying to turn back the tide.

Sensible wine professionals will be keeping an open mind. Listening to the experiences of their peers. Considering the implications: what, for example, if their style of fermentation needs the stems the harvesting machines leave on the vines? How would automation solve that problem?

Most importantly, they will open-mindedly taste wines that have been produced by the new methods and compare them with ones made using traditional techniques.

And of course, the machines will be found wanting. Certainly at first. But they will improve,  surprisingly quickly until no one thinks it strange to see a robot picker selecting individual grapes in Sauternes.

Do I foresee machine harvesting at Yquem or Latour anytime soon? No, of course not. Even if/when automation were able to perform the task, the brand image would still benefit from having human beings do it. Just as photogenic horses have provided a marketing boost to many estates in recent years. But these are exceptions to the rule. Just as they are exceptional in being able to find and pay for pickers while their less illustrious neighbours struggle to do so.

We live in an age of AI – Artificial Intelligence – whose hallmark is the ability to learn from its mistakes and to explore new ways to achieve its goals.

And, yes, that has all sorts of scary implications.

But they’re a lot scarier if we don’t apply our human intelligence to the best ways to use that technology rather than simply to pretend that grumbling about it will make it go away.

 

Robert Joseph

Charles Palmer's original Linkedin post is here

 

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