December 2013 Issue of Wines & Vines
Grapegrower Interview: Steve McIntyre
Manager of 10,000 acres in Monterey discusses technology, labor and sustainability
Although Steve McIntyre trained as a winemaker—he received his master’s degree in enology from California State University, Fresno, in 1982—he is much better known for his skills as a viticulturist.
After helping to develop Galante Vineyards in Carmel Valley, Calif., and then working as assistant winemaker and, later, viticulturist at Smith & Hook (now Hahn Family Wines) in Soledad, Calif., McIntyre and his wife Kimberly started Monterey Pacific, a vineyard management company that now farms about 10,000 acres in Monterey County. (The McIntyres also own or are partners in about 400 vineyard acres.) Monterey Pacific grows or manages grapes for companies ranging from small boutique wineries like Miura and Testarossa to large operations like Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines and Constellation Brands Inc.
McIntyre is also a former partner in Monterey Wine Co., a custom-crush facility in King City, Calif., and he and his wife own McIntyre Vineyards, which produces small quantities of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sparkling wine from their 60-acre vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands as well as Merlot from Arroyo Seco.
Wines & Vines: Is there any new vineyard machinery or technology that you’re particularly excited about?
Steve McIntyre: Robotic pruning machines. Engineers are making great strides in building mobile robotic pruners using artificial vision technology currently employed in optical scanners at packing sheds. It works much like the DaVinci surgical robot in that it can see the area between spurs where a cut is required, and its articulating arms (one on either side of the trailer-mounted device) reach out to make the appropriate cut. They are beta-testing this equipment in two hemispheres and hope to have a commercial product in two years or less. The company is called Vision Robotics.
I continue to be intrigued by sap-flow devices and dendrometers for use in plant-based water-status measurements. Instantaneous measurements utilizing data loggers that do not require technicians or time-of-day-sensitive sampling, as are required with pressure-bomb readings, will provide a greater number of data points to refine the use of agronomic software, thereby improving irrigation scheduling to further enhance wine quality. Current techniques are labor- and time-intensive and lack the automation required to farm large blocks.
W&V: You’ve said in the past that some newer machinery has its drawbacks and isn’t necessarily better than the tried-and-true. For example, you have mixed feelings about electrostatic sprayers. What are the drawbacks and the appropriate uses?
McIntyre: I do have mixed feelings about electrostatic sprayers. On one hand, they provide superior coverage and theoretically reduce amounts of pesticides and fungicides required on a per-acre basis. While this seems to be true with applications related to the monitoring of insect populations prior to treatment under an integrated pest management program, the current technology can be troublesome for prophylactic applications for organisms such as powdery mildew. Most pest control on the Central Coast takes place at night to avoid problems associated with our infamous wind. With electrostatic technology, it is critical that the droplet leave the nozzle with a “charge” in order for the plant to attract the oppositely charged droplet. Should the electrostatic technology that ionizes the droplet fail for even a few seconds, the treated vines would not receive sufficient coverage. Under this nighttime scenario, it might be very difficult for an operator to sense there was a problem with the system. Consequently, if there were enough coverage lapses due to intermittent (or worse) electrostatic failure, a grower might have to re-treat a block when he or she determines the material did not kill the intended target. With mildew control, a grower wouldn’t know there was a problem until there was an infection, which everyone knows is very difficult to deal with after the fact. Until such time as the system has redundant fail-safe reliability, it should be limited to organisms with an economic population threshold greater than zero. I prefer airblast sprayers, especially in our infamous wind.
W&V: What are you doing to prepare for labor shortages in the vineyards?
McIntyre: We are grading the productivity of each crew that we utilize and returning unproductive crews to the licensed labor contractors we have hired. Once we have found the most productive crews, we try to keep them working year-round so as not to lose them.
It is likely that Obamacare, immigration reform and labor scarcity will eliminate the advantages of using outside labor contractors. Consequently, it will become advantageous to hire all our own employees, which will help us hold the line on costs, as health care costs will be offset by commissions we used to pay to contractors. Many growers have used labor contractors because they don’t want to deal with the burden of I-9 forms and immigration documentation, but if immigration reform requires growers to use E-Verify, and the grower is ultimately liable for health care penalties (or premiums), payroll taxes and citizenship status, what’s the point of using a contractor?
All of our new plantings for the past two years and the next two years are being set up for complete mechanization—pruning, harvesting, minimal canopy management—in preparation for labor shortages.
W&V: Is it hard to persuade higher end wine producers that mechanical harvesting can yield good results?
McIntyre: Today’s sophisticated mechanical harvesters not only significantly reduce harvesting costs on a per-acre basis, they are more dependable and deliver much less MOG (material other than grapes) than most hand-harvesting crews. It seems the best way to persuade higher end wine producers that mechanical harvesting is superior to hand harvesting is to point out that machine harvesters are being used at many of the classified-growth chateaus in France, and then offer to provide a demonstration or trial to satisfy their skepticism. It is very important when conducting these trials that precautions are taken to ensure success. Specifically, make sure the grapes don’t have to be transported more than a couple of miles to the winery and minimize the number of times the grapes fall, or are dumped, during the harvest process. Most modern machines only allow the grapes to fall twice: from one conveyor to another on the machine, and then once again either into a tank on the machine or gondola being towed by a tractor close by. Since the gondola or tank will have to be dumped into either a truck, crush pit or, ideally, right into a tank, it is important to minimize maceration and juicing as much as possible during this final stage of the journey.
W&V: As vineyard machinery gets more complex, training the workforce can be a challenge. What advice would you give to other growers about this?
McIntyre: Task your area grape or wine association to solicit your local junior college to provide instructional programs specific to your industry’s needs. This has worked quite well here in the Salinas Valley, at Hartnell College. Alternatively, assemble a group of companies or an organization such as the (Central Coast) Vineyard Team to provide privately funded group training in the appropriate language.
W&V: Although you farm organically and/or Biodynamically for some clients, you prefer to practice sustainable viticulture. Why?
McIntyre: Our operation has vineyards that are certified under the Sustainability in Practice (SIP) and Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing programs. Currently, we have decided to use just the SIP program for our certification needs, primarily because it is local and I was involved in its formation.
I believe we need to embrace, promote and define sustainable agriculture that combines beneficial, scientifically proven practices from conventional, organic and Biodynamic farming systems that considers all the cumulative impacts of our decisions. The process of adoption would be a dynamic one, since science is a self-correcting discipline.
There are many environmental benefits to certified organic, but what about the extra equipment, diesel, air pollution and compaction required to tend an organic vineyard? Most organic growers use cultivation to tend to organic weed control instead of herbicides. However, anyone who has tended a garden knows that when you cultivate the weeds they grow back quite rapidly, as opposed to using a contact herbicide, where new weeds take much longer to re-establish. Consequently, an herbicide program has a smaller carbon footprint than an organic cultivation strategy due to the fact it requires less equipment, smaller equipment (that uses less fuel and thereby emits fewer pollutants) and fewer passes to accomplish the same control. Additionally, cultivation releases methane gas, which is 30 times more reactive than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Studies have also shown greater mycorrhizal and beneficial bacteria activity and populations under non-cultivated vineyard floors. The carbon footprint continues to favor herbicides even when you consider the carbon footprint required to manufacture the herbicide.
Unless there is a marketing niche, to adhere strictly to any one farming system such as organic is painting oneself in an expensive box. What if it was discovered and proven scientifically that pine needles spread in the vine row would suppress the growth of the bacteria that causes Pierce’s disease? Growers with PD would undoubtedly use this defense. Then, five years later, it was discovered that salts from all the pine needles were starting to inhibit vine growth and building up toxic levels of salts in the soils. Meanwhile, Monsanto discovers the “molecule” in the pine needles responsible for PD suppression. What is the responsible thing to do: physically spread all those needles that ultimately inhibit a healthy soil environment, or use a synthetic form of the active ingredient without the same unintended consequences?
It is imperative that we do not try and adopt standards for sustainability.Certainly, we need metrics to evaluate our progress, but to set standards will place practitioners once again within the proverbial box. Recently, a standard was adopted by SIP that stipulated a maximum width for an herbicide band under the vine. Some of our vineyards had a wider band, and we were in danger of not receiving certification. However, once we explained that the wider band helps facilitate our in-row ripping program, which helps incorporate our heavy use of compost to build up our organic matter to ameliorate the impact of naturally occurring cadmium in our soil, the certification panel realized the standard was flawed.
Certainly organic is a great marketing tool, a whole other segment of the marketplace, but I would propose that there is ultimately more inherent industry integrity and benefit to the environment to be gained with the combination of scientifically peer-reviewed practices from all of the various farming systems. To me, this is the basis for sustainability.
A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.
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