Robots take over vineyards in Italy as wineries struggle with worker shortages over Covid-19

Valdella, Italy – Last year’s grape harvest was a horrific stampede at Mirco Capelli’s Tuscan vineyard. With Italy’s borders closed due to the pandemic, Eastern European workers he was counting on were unable to enter the country. The company he contracted to supply grape pickers had no one to offer it to him. He eventually found enough workers to bring the grapes on time.

So, this year Mr. Capelli made sure he wouldn’t have the same problem: he spent 85,000 euros, the equivalent of $98,000, on a grape-harvesting machine.

The coronavirus pandemic is pushing the wine industry toward automation.

Covid-related travel restrictions left a severe shortage of agricultural workers last year, with residents of Eastern Europe and North Africa unable to reach fields in Western Europe. Although the shortages have eased this year, the difficulty in finding workers has speeded up the shift, which was already underway across the agricultural sector.

While the harvesting of some crops, such as soybeans and corn, has become largely automated, winemakers have been slower to make the change. Vintners discuss whether mechanized harvesting is likely to harm grapes, which could affect wine quality. Cost is a deterrent for many small farmers. Some European regions even ban mechanized harvesting.

Ritano Baragli, in the foreground, picking grapes by hand.

For many brewers in Europe and the United States, the difficulty of finding workers — a problem they say has grown steadily for years but has become acute during the pandemic — has led them to automated decision making. It’s a change that will hold up after the pandemic and could alter the long-standing migration patterns that bring tens of thousands of foreign workers to Italy, France and Spain for crops each year.

Ritano Paragli, president of Cantina Sociale Colli Fiorentini Valvirgilio, a group of Tuscany winemakers, said it has been becoming more difficult to find collectors for several years, as locals increasingly shun low-paid, short-term physical labor while the demand for collectors grows.

But last year was the worst labor shortage in half a century of his winemaking career. He said the use of harvesting machines among group members increased 20% this year in response.

“Even smaller producers are starting to consider buying machinery,” Mr. Barragley said.

Mr. Cappelli was one of those who made the change.

Grapes are unloaded from a reaper on the farm of Mirco Capelli in Tuscany.

After their grapes are picked, growers from the Cantina Sociale Colli Fiorentini Valvirgilio take them to the collection center to be processed into wine.

“It was a very difficult decision for a farm as small as ours – it would take a long time to recoup the investment,” said Cappelli, a fourth-generation winemaker, of the purchase of the 13-hectare grape-harvesting machine. “But now when the grapes are ready, I can pick them. I don’t have to worry about finding workers.”

He was lucky that he managed to get the machine made by the French manufacturer Pellenc. Demand for automated grape harvesters is up 5% to 10% annually, said Philip Astwin, director of the company’s agricultural division, but has jumped about 20% this year.

A shortage of spare parts – which has also plagued automakers during the pandemic – has left the company unable to meet all orders. Mr. Astwin expects demand to continue to grow, as rising labor costs make automation relatively affordable. In Britain, for example, the minimum wage for farm workers increased by 34% between 2014 and 2020, according to Andersons Group, an agricultural business advisory group.

What we hear from our customers in [Western] “Europe and North America … are not sure they will be able to gather the people they need for the harvest,” said Mr. Astwin.

Supply shocks, increased demand and labor shortages pose inflationary pressures on firms. Napa Valley Winery provides a window into how companies decide whether or not to raise their prices. Photo: Carl Molohan for The Wall Street Journal

However, some grape-growing regions are still dedicated to traditional manual harvesting. In some cases, machines are not suitable for steep terrain or for certain grape-growing patterns. In France, where the agricultural sector is less dependent on foreign workers than in Italy or Spain, labor shortages – and the push towards mechanization – have been less pressing.

And in regions that produce high-quality and expensive wines, growers doubt the ability of a machine to do the job like a human.

In Burgundy, France, mechanized harvesting has not gained popularity, according to Thiébault Huber, president of Confédération des Appellations et des Vignerons de Bourgogne, a trade group for winemakers, in part because of farmers’ skepticism about the quality of the grapes they select. .

Machine harvesting of champagne is prohibited by laws designed to preserve the tradition of hand picking.

Ritano Baragli uses a machine to pick most of the grapes from his land, but he still makes part of the vineyard by hand.

“It was a very difficult decision for a farm as small as ours,” said Mirco Capelli in the introduction to purchasing a grape harvesting machine.

“The entire grape variety should reach the press intact, without damage,” said Philippe Webrot, a spokesperson for Comité Champagne, a trade group for makers of the same-named product in the region. “There is no machine that can be harvested without destroying the grapes,” he said.

In Valdelsa, a region between Siena and Florence famous for its Chianti production, brewers say the machines do at least as good a job as humans.

Mr. Barragley hires a neighbor who has a harvesting machine to pick more than 12 hectares of grapes, an increasingly common practice in the area. But he still made part of the vineyard by hand.

Last week, he and several members of his family made their way through the remaining unbroken vineyards. They cut bunches of grapes from the stem and threw them into buckets. Each class took about 30 minutes for half a dozen workers.

It was a throwback to a time when harvesting was a communal ritual in Tuscany – when friends and family would gather to pick grapes and help students make extra money – before the industry relied steadily on foreign workers over the past two decades.

“I will miss it,” said Ellaria Barragley, the daughter of Mr. Barragley, of hand picking, if her father had gone to harvest the whole machine. “But I’m also open to new technology.”

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In Mr. Capelli’s vineyard, a few miles away, Mr. Capelli was strapping his new mechanism to the back of his tractor. Rattles and hums, the reaper shook the row of vines, sucking up the fruit that had fallen as a result. Each row was finished in about three minutes, leaving behind fruitless stems, save for a few small, immature grapes.

Mr. Capelli and his father finished harvesting in about 10 days, he said, compared to about 18 days with manual pickers, and he survived the headache of finding workers.

“These modern machines do a great job — sometimes even better than the workers,” he said. “Especially in terms of cleaning the grapes and getting rid of the stems.”

For some farmers, the pandemic has left them no choice but to embrace automation.

Jaume Sole, a farmer in Catalonia, Spain, who grows grapes to make kava, has in recent years relied largely on Senegalese workers for the harvest. But last year, there was nowhere for workers to stay in his small mountain village that complies with Covid-19 regulations. He was going to hire a company that had a machine to do the harvesting, but the closest company was 20 kilometers away, too far to bring a harvester on mountain roads.

Last winter, he bought his own machine, a 30-year-old model that was one of the first mechanized harvesters, for 45,000 euros. For his 25-hectare farm, it was all he could afford, and it would take at least five years to pay it off. But he felt he had no other choice.

“It would have been better not to buy an expensive one, given this uncertain economic situation,” Mr. Sully said, referring to the pandemic. “It’s old, but it works.”

The fall harvest in Tuscany used to rely more on family and friends to pick the grapes before increasingly employing foreign workers.

write to Ian Lovett at ian.lovett@wsj.com

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