Michigan’s grape-harvesting season is in full swing, which means vineyards are once again working with a diverse — but, in some cases, small — assemblage of pickers to bring in the crops.
A shortage of harvest workers is a common issue and one that many vineyards need to work around every year. In Leelanau County, Rove Estate’s harvest, which started almost mid-October, was delayed a little bit because of a lack of labor.
Pushing out the harvest timeline can be precarious because of the threat of frost and inclement fall weather.
“Time is everything in farming,” says Rove Estate co-owner McKenzie Gallagher. “The more we can control the time it takes, the better.”
Providing housing for migrant workers “is a huge factor in being able to secure labor,” she says, but that’s often not financially feasible at smaller vineyard operations.
“With Michigan being such a huge agricultural state, … we need affordable housing,” Gallagher says. “We need more resources, banks, grants, so that farmers — especially the small farmers — can have access to housing so that we can bring in the labor we need to get through our season.”
In the end, harvesting Rove Estate’s 22 acres turns into a total team effort, from the winery owners down to the tasting room employees.
“We all work together and get it done,” Gallagher says.
Many wineries rely on vineyard management companies to secure help with their harvests. Bonobo Winery in Traverse City, for example, consistently works with a management company to get migrant workers during busy times of the year.
“We truly value our vineyard crew, and there’s no way that any of us could get through harvest without them,” says Alaina Leech, who works in marketing at Bonobo. “They’re integral to our harvest and to northern Michigan.”
Similarly, wineries such as Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula, a more-or-less midsized agricultural operation, work with larger farms to “share” vineyard workers.
“We often work in tandem with those other larger farms, so a large cherry producer — we might ‘share’ an employee here and there, if you will,” says Marie-Chantal Dalese, president and CEO of Chateau Chantal. “(A worker will) do cherries, then they’ll come do grapes for us and then do apples back for that farmer. So, there’s a little bit of availability that’s on the spot like that that is good for a farm our size.”
At vineyards that are large enough to justify the expense, mechanization — as opposed to strict hand-picking — can help.
“We are lucky in that we have employed mechanical harvesting for a number of years now, so that somewhat solved a lot of labor issues for us years ago,” Dalese says.
The winery mechanically harvests about 90 percent of the approximately 100 acres it tends — 40 of its own and an extra 60 it manages — using a Pellenc Tool Carrier. Chateau Chantal’s year-round vineyard crew of five, along with four or five others who join for harvest, hand-pick the rest.
Mechanical harvesting has its advantages and disadvantages. Machines might break down and require repairs. On the flip side, the process is significantly faster than the traditional hand-picking method.
“The mechanical harvester … affords us a lot more time to get that optimal ripeness,” Dalese says. “Hand-harvesting would obviously take twice as long or more to accomplish, and you might run out of time, so you’ve got to pick something just because you need to pick it. With the machine harvester, we can wait for that precise moment and go get it and bring it directly into the winery.”
At some vineyards, harvest is an opportunity to engage the community and give vino lovers a hands-on, behind-the-scenes look at the grapes that become their favorite wines.
Youngblood Vineyard in northern Macomb County, for example, has been coordinating with The Whitney in downtown Detroit to host a comprehensive winemaking and dining experience that began with a harvest event last month. Participants from that will convene again early next year for a barrel tasting and once more in June to try the finished products.
“It’s a great experience, it’s a learning experience, and it’s a several-stage process — and we like that,” says co-owner Jess Youngblood. “People feel more connected to the wine; they feel more connected to the vineyard when they’ve helped not just pick the grapes, but process them and basically see them from vine to bottle.”
Up North in Kewadin, wine enthusiasts participate in a small “social harvest” at WaterFire Vineyards and enjoy a meal together afterward. More than 20 volunteers showed up on a Sunday morning in October this year to help harvest a couple of acres of Grüner grapes.
Nancy Baker, a college admissions consultant in the Chicago area who spends about half the year at her home in Elk Rapids, joined in the Grüner harvest this year. She also picked grapes last season.
“It was always on my bucket list to help bring in a harvest,” she says. “We wanted to do more than just drink (wine) or collect it. … When you’re really involved in bringing something out of the vineyard, it completely changes how you feel when you’re sipping it a year later.”
Baker, who has traveled to Europe numerous times with her husband and visited famous wine regions there, enjoys learning about wines, their heritage and their culinary and cultural significance. One of the benefits of participating in WaterFire’s harvest was that she could ask the vineyard owners questions about the growing process while she picked, which added an educational element to the experience.
The work itself wasn’t easy, Baker says — from bending low to pick grapes during a chilly morning to lugging pallets to the end of the row — but she valued the experience and plans to continue participating annually.
“It’s almost like an autumn ritual now,” she says. “We planned our trip up to Michigan around when they thought that the grapes would be coming in.
“I can’t think of a better way to spend a sunny fall day than helping to bring in a grape harvest.”