Innovation and expansion have fuelled the evolution of the wine industry in the past decade or more in Niagara, and Joe Pillitteri has been in the thick of it since 2007 when he purchased Lake-view Vineyard Equipment in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
His natural enthusiasm becomes even more exuberant when he talks about how the growth in his company has created good jobs for the local economy.
“Jobs in Niagara matter to me. We have apprenticeships, technicians, salespeople, and our business helps facilitate the growth of stable, well-paying, long-term jobs in NOTL, which are harder and harder to come by,” he explains.
“We had six employees in 2007, now we have 21 people. Sales volume has increased five times during that period, and reach has extended into other provinces and 38 different states in the U.S.,” Pillitteri says.
As its name would imply, Lakeview Vineyard Equipment sells and maintains various types of machines used in the vineyards.
Labour shortages and improvements in technology underpin the growing demand for mechanized solutions to reduce manual work in all phases of vineyard management.
“It’s about becoming more efficient, but also about ways the mechanization has viticulture benefits compared to manual methods,” according to Pillitteri.
One iconic sight in NOTL is the huge yellow harvester machine straddling rows of grapes, shaking them free from the vines when they’re ripe. There are 110 harvester machines in Ontario, despite costing anywhere from $200,000 to $480,000 each, depending on the features.
“The threshold for owning a harvester is lower in Niagara than anywhere else because of icewine. You have maybe one or two nights to pick, so you have to be ready, and you have to harvest quickly.”
Pillitteri adds that the timing for the harvest is so critical, his team is on call during that period in case a grower needs emergency maintenance on their machines.
While the harvester machines have been around for a long time, there are new innovations that complement the work they do.
One example is called the Easy Clean System, which Pillitteri’s team helped develop. It’s an add-on to the harvesters and “it blows out light debris, de-stems, sorts, and removes 99.8 per cent of MOG (material other than grapes),” he explains, adding “it used to be used by one in 10 growers, but now 100 per cent go out with that.”
Among the newer innovations, there’s “a sprayer that recaptures any material that doesn’t land on the leaf canopy. Early in the growing season, when the canopy is thin, it saves as much as 50 per cent of the chemical it applies. Later in the season, once the canopy is heavier that percentage is reduced because more of the material sticks to the leaves,” he says.
In either case, it eliminates waste and ensures the material only goes where targeted and is not sprayed into the air or soil. This technology is only 18 months old, and so far less than 10 per cent of the market is using it.
Other vineyard tasks that have been mechanized include weed removal and leaf removal.
Mechanical weed removal tools pull up the weeds by their roots early in the growing season, making maintenance much easier and reducing the need to use pesticide.
Leaves in the fruit zone need to be thinned to allow for air circulation and sunlight. The leaf removal system uses compressed air to blow leaves off their stems, leaving the grapes intact. Mechanization allows this to be done more quickly than if it were manual, so it’s easier to complete this at the optimal time in the growth cycle.
And after harvest time, there’s an optical sorter that’s available, though not yet widely used. “Using the optical sorter, two or three people can process 10 tons of grapes per hour. Manually, it takes 20 to 30 people to sort the same amount in an hour.” Grapes are sorted for consistent colour, shape and size.
Newer technology produces a speedier payback than it used to, according to Pillitteri, and “the price for grapes hasn’t increased, therefore growers need to become more efficient and productive to see any increase in revenue.”
Quite apart from all the technological explanations and improvements, this business is in Pillitteri’s blood.
“I grew up on a farm and I always believed I’d be a farmer, maybe because I always wanted to drive a tractor. I’ve always been in awe of equipment, I love machines. I’d be happy any day to get up in a harvester and pick grapes for hours. It’s peaceful, you’re out in nature, and contributing to making a product that people love.”
Next: How one NOTL grower has adopted a new tool that makes pruning faster and easier.