BY LAURIE MIHOLER- Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A dwindling labor pool and challenging packaging costs are prompting several northern Michigan winemakers to utilize innovative technologies in their vineyards.
“When I came here 30 years ago, there was little mechanization,” said Mark Johnson, winemaker at Chateau Chantel on Old Mission Peninsula. “Yet, most small farmers in Europe had it, even with as few as 10 or 20 acres.”
Wineries like Chateau Chantel, Good Harbor Vineyards, L. Mawby Vineyards and others are increasingly turning to machines and new packaging technologies to find efficiencies. In many cases, machines pulled by tractors are doing the work that, in the past, was done by humans. Examples include pre-pruners for trimming, shoot positioners, leaf pullers and hedgers. The use of the machines is a relatively recent development in the United States, the winemakers said.
Sam Simpson, who co-owns Good Harbor Vineyards in Leelanau County with sibling Taylor, is a recent convert to the new equipment. Last year they rented the equipment from Chateau Chantel. This year, they’ve not only purchased their own, but have also set up an agriculture management program allowing them to use their equipment on other vineyards and hop yards.
“Currently, we’re only running equipment on small vineyards who are using our full management services," Simpson said. “It’s a way for us to make use of the equipment.”
“It’s also a significant cost savings,” he said. “None of our clients will ever want to go back.”
Migrant workers are still a main source of labor for much of the work in the vineyards but that pool has shrunk for many reasons, said Johnson. One primary reason is the uncertainty of immigration legislation. Another is the increased demand for labor from more and more vineyards, Simpson said.
Both Johnson and Simpson agree the use of machinery has not caused layoffs.
“We still hire the same amount of people,” Sam Simpson said.
“We’ve just tripled our acreage,” Taylor Simpson said. “The equipment has not cut labor, it’s expanded it. Our people are busy.”
Johnson said some $8 an hour jobs were eliminated but better paying jobs were also created because the winery needs employees who understand the equipment.
Sam Simpson said the same.
“It’s a learning curve for workers,” he said. “We have to train laborers to be more specialized.”
“We were able to purchase the equipment initially with funds from a national grant for innovation in agriculture,” Johnson said.
The machinery at Chateau Chantel was purchased through grants requiring the winery to give demonstrations and share the equipment with other growers in the area. Other vineyards thus had the opportunity to try out the machines.
The industry is also seeing lots of innovation in products such as filters, pumps, presses and kegged wines. Both Good Harbor and L. Mawby Vineyards are leading the charge on kegged wines -- the kegs used by the two wineries, Key Kegs, are constructed with aluminum, plastic, and cardboard and are 100 percent recyclable.
The air and Co2 never come in contact with the wine, which keeps it fresh longer, said Taylor Simpson.
“You don’t have to worry about consistency and quality once the keg gets tapped and hooked up to the draft system,” she said. “The wine will stay fresh for up to six months.”
That’s good news for Rick Wanroy, owner of the Cove restaurant in Leland, who is a big proponent of eliminating waste and improving his restaurant’s green footprint.
“There’s a huge amount of waste with wine,” Wanroy said. “First, you’ve got the bottles that are made and shipped from Mexico. Then you’ve got corks, you’ve got labels, you’ve got cardboard boxes.”
Using the kegs has cut down on the Cove’s waste dramatically.
“It has removed the equivalent of over 1,000 bottles out of the trash,” Wanroy said, “One keg holds about 40 bottles of wine.”
L. Mawby Vineyards was the first area winery to begin kegging wine and has put wines from their M. Lawrence collection into kegs. The Cove curr has kegs of two of their most popular wines, Fishtown White and their own, private label Pinot Grigo, both from Good Harbor.