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Machines Are Coming For Natural Wine
Meinklang’s embrace of machine harvesting is a watershed moment - for the monumental Burgenland biodynamic estate, and perhaps for natural wine at large.
Harvest time is here again, which means urgent calls for harvesters are ringing out across social media from wine estates the world over. Assembling a harvest team is rarely an easy task nowadays, even for relatively well-established French natural winemakers. The situation is aggravated in viticultural zones with higher costs of living, like much of California, Australia, and, it would appear, Austria’s Burgenland, where renowned biodynamic estate Meinklang has ramped up machine harvesting in recent years.
Trials with machine harvesters began at Meinklang during the rain-soaked vintage of 2014. Today, fully half the estate’s harvest from its 80ha of vineyards is conducted with machines. For Meinklang’s Werner Michlits, its a question of minimizing the hassle of dealing with multiple teams of migrant labor from eastern Europe.
“The way our full-time team is set up, they don’t want to work with these people. So they are not in a good mood. I’m in a stress. You have to permanently watch what they’re picking and cutting. It’s a drama,” he says. “The machine does a better selection than they do by hand.”
Subscribers can read my full interview with Meinklang’s Werner Michlits on the subject HERE.
Michlits’ reasoning is typical of winemakers at organic and conventional estates that practice machine harvesting. But his position is unique among estates whose wines are heavily represented within the natural wine market, where the practice of hand-harvesting, like native yeast fermentation, is taken as a given.
Meinklang’s embrace of machine harvesting thus constitutes a watershed moment - certainly for Meinklang, and perhaps for natural wine at large.
MACHINES IN PRACTICE
For Michlits, harvesting machines are just “a tool” to get a job done. The overwhelming majority of natural winemakers, however, are quick to point out that harvesting machines are stylistically determinative, in both viticulture and vinification.
“To save the traditional goblet-training, you have to avoid harvesting machines,” says southern Rhône vigneron Marcel Richaud, who fought successfully to forbid machine harvesting in the cru charter of his local Cairanne appellation. “Otherwise everything gets installed on a wire, everything gets mechanized, and we lose the balance of the plant.”
Unable to pass through dense or low vine training, harvesting machines require wide-spaced rows adapted to machines. Even in regions where goblet training (or any dense or low vine training) is not typical, machine harvesting comprises a harsh physical manipulation of the vine plant, and results in significant soil compaction.
“Those machines are used at a time when it is not always possible to consider soil conditions,” says Burgenland vigneronne Stephanie Tscheppe-Eselböck of Gut Oggau, who acknowledges that, in theory, many of her estate’s vineyards could be adapted to machine harvesting. “If the grapes are ripe, you have to harvest, going in when the soil is wet, or not in a condition to support such heavy machines in every single row.”
Tscheppe-Eselböck and her husband Eduard are committed to hand-harvesting for multiple reasons.
“We do all the sorting of the grapes out in the vineyards. Each bunch is carefully checked, and everything that is not harmoniously mature or healthy stays in the vineyards,” she says. “Machines can’t sort grapes in the same sensitive way.”
Machine harvesters function either by violently shaking the vine trunk, or via a system of rods called “pivotal strikers” that thwack the bejeezus out of the canopy. This results in uptake of substantial quantities of “MOG”: material other than grapes, including vine branches, birds’ nests, snakes, mice, wasps, and so forth.
More significantly, the grape breakage inflicted by harvesting machines limits vinification options. The moment grape skin breaks, the moment a grape berry is detached from its peduncle, oxidation and bacterial activity begin. Anyone attempting to make natural wine with machine-harvested grapes is starting fermentation at a steep disadvantage.
As Tscheppe-Eselböck says, “Bringing the grapes back in the winery with small boxes assures that the grapes stay intact till processing, which helps us to practice a non-interventionist, no-sulfites-added approach.”
Nowadays, many machine harvesters are outfitted with various means of enological intervention, such as the addition of “killer yeast” (which secures a fermentation milieu from bacterial attack by taking it over wholesale), and / or by means of heavy refrigeration (as with much high-end Provençal rosé).
But sulfite addition upon the harvest remains the most common intervention upon machine-harvested grapes. Retired vigneron Jean-Marie Puzelat of Clos due Tue-Boeuf recalls the arrival of machine harvesters in France’s Cher valley.
“The technicians from the Chamber of Agriculture would say, ‘When you harvest by machine, you sulfite between 6-8g / HL on the day of the harvest, right in the bins, to avoid oxidation and protect damaged grapes, because the juice is extracted already,’” he says. “Whereas we’ve always harvested by hand, in 25kg cases. It’s essential. Because when you harvest like that you don’t need to add sulfites.”
MACHINES IN THEORY
Perhaps more importantly, the use of harvesting machines risks institutionalizing the same rural societal problems the practice purports to address.
Are there too few people available and willing to perform vital manual vineyard tasks? (Not just harvest, but pruning, wood pulling, etc.) Is housing inaccessible in your wine region? Is land too expensive?
None of these problems is ameliorated by machine harvesting, which instead encourages outside investors to believe manual harvest labor is unnecessary for quality wine production. In such a way, machine harvesting exacerbates and accelerates land speculation and rural exodus: the very phenomena that have made many European wine regions reliant on harvesting machines and migrant labor.
On the contrary, the necessity of hand-harvesting for qualitative natural winemaking could be considered a useful check on the rate at which a natural winemaking business can grow; i.e. not faster than the available labor pool. In such a light, the very project of natural winemaking comes into conflict with excessive concentration of wealth and land ownership (which in itself causes or reinforces social and economic imbalances that are rather more serious than wine tastiness).
Indeed, small estates have it easier when it comes to assembling manual harvest teams.
“Obviously harvesting doesn’t pay very well, and it’s rough work. So the local young people look for different options,” says Burgenland natural wine négociant Paul Schuster of Kollektiv Peternell, who harvests from about 6ha with his partners Simon Ecker and Dave Ferris. “We always have enough people, though, because we work mostly with friends and family.”
Neusiedl vigneronne Maria Koppitsch, who practices exclusively hand-harvesting at the 6.3ha estate she runs with her husband Alexander, gets by with five paid interns each harvest season, generally natural wine fans from around the world.
“We want to enjoy the whole harvesting process, with like-minded people that enjoy being in the vineyards,” she says. “In life, what matters are humans and everything else living out there, not machines.”
ONE FAMILY COMPANY
At 2500ha of total farmland, Meinklang’s land holdings on the Austrian-Hungarian border exceed, in terms of surface area, the sum of all vineyards in the Jura. In addition to their aforementioned 80ha of vineyards, the estate grows grains and vegetables and raises cattle, pigs, and chickens; the Meinklang project also comprises a retail shop in Vienna and a Waldorf school based, since 2016, in Neusiedl.
The Meinklang farm employs, by Michlits’ reckoning, about thirty people full-time, including family members. This comes out to about one full-time job per 83 hectares, which sounds like awfully few jobs, until one learns that in the USA, conventional cereal farming supports just one worker per 156 hectares.
Indeed, by the standards of grain agriculture, grapes might seem like a particularly finicky, hassle-prone crop, if one must harvest them by hand.
“It’s such marketing,” says Michlits, “to harvest by hand just so that we can say we harvest by hand.”
New York restaurateur and wine retailer Marie Triboulley, of Ridgewood’s Forêt Wines and Bushwick’s Ops Pizza, is no fan of machine harvesting. But she argues that Meinklang’s commitment to environmental preservation should be taken into account when considering the estate’s use of harvesting machines.
“Think of what would have happened if they hadn’t purchased all that land,” she notes. “It would have all gone to developers, or to much more environmentally damaging projects.”
RAW Wine’s Isabelle Legeron MW concurs.
“I’m a big fan of what they do,” she says. “The stuff they’ve achieved locally, the Steiner school they’ve built. They’re really into change and looking after that piece of land that they have.”
A LAND AND ITS PEOPLE
In light of the estate’s immense size and commitment to biodynamics, Meinklang’s embrace of machine harvesting poses questions about the responsibilities of a farm to its surrounding community. To what extent is natural farming about preserving the connection between a people and a land? To what extent is it about preserving a land from exploitation by people?
Does a farm do service to its community by maintaining qualitative manual practices, including harvest, and thereby providing jobs (albeit low-paying ones) ? Or is one’s community better served with attempts to eliminate the need for low-paid labor?
It is, of course, a subject bigger than Meinklang, and bigger than Burgenland.
In the Beaujolais today, alongside harvesting machines, one sees many Spanish, Turkish, or Polish teams; in the Languedoc, Moroccan harvest teams abound (along with many more machines). At this point, for qualitative large-scale winemakers, dealing equitably with migrant harvest labor is just part of the job. The wish to absolve oneself from this aspect of wine production can suggest a certain pessimism about the feasibility of effectively accommodating migrant labor within a given society.
In the course of an interview back in 2016, the Beaujolais vigneron Philippe Jambon noted this uneasy connection in his own region.
“Winemakers here are eighty-percent National Front. They won’t tolerate foreigners, except during harvest, because you have to bring in the grapes,” he said. “But they’ll switch to harvesting machines, and then they won’t tolerate anything at all.”
THE POWER OF NATURAL WINE
As popular demand for natural wine at low prices continues to surge, many more large-scale organic and biodynamic wine estates are likely to follow Meinklang’s lead and opt for machine harvesting, whether due to frustration with the challenges of dealing with migrant labor, or simple cost-profit analysis.
“It’s mainly due to cost pressure on the markets,” says Stephanie Tscheppe-Eselböck. “People would like to hear everything they consume is handcrafted and artisanal, but they’re not willing to pay the prices for the manual labor. It’s a discussion that affects not just wine, but food in general. The person who buys cheap pays dearly in the end, with all the external costs being born by society.”
Invariably, in Burgenland and beyond, the use of machine harvesters remains revealing of why an estate is producing wine.
Making any kind of wine can be worthwhile in a basic sense, thanks to its value as an end product, a commodity, a beverage. But making good natural wine is especially worthwhile because it has the potential to showcase a production paradigm that, for aesthetic success, requires - and therefore demonstrates the value of - manual farm labor and a strong rural community. This dynamic lends substantial symbolic power to natural wine, the beverage.
That power is what is at stake when estates known for natural wine embrace machine harvesting.
Anyway. Happy harvest, everyone! Use your hands, if you can. 👋
My interview with Meinklang’s Werner Michlits, on the estate’s decision to employ limited machine harvesting.
Natural Wine & The Limits of AI: Why ChatGPT and other large-language networks are antithetical to natural wine. (No paywall.)
To wit: at time of writing, the results of a Google search for “Meinklang machine harvest” consist entirely of mistaken or outdated blurbs from importers and retailers to the effect that Meinklang harvest without machines.