The Old Farmer’s Almanac adroitly predicted a hot, dry summer for eastern Canada but failed to forecast a once-in-a-century phenomenon: a global pandemic. No matter, says Ernie Wiens who’s taking baseline brix tests in his 400 acres of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario vineyards. This is his 45th year of growing grapes and he has yet to see one year mimic another.
“The quality is expected to be exceptional, but with many days of plus 30°C temperatures, volumes will be down about 20 per cent,” says Wiens.
Wiens and his three sons – James, Daniel and Tim – have adjusted to a business environment with fewer workers. There is no alternative for hand pruning or tying vines in the spring, so already, applications have been filed for 24 seasonal workers in 2021 with the assumption that a 14-day quarantine will be required. He is thankful for government funding so far that has supported housing and personal protective equipment.
As of October 1, 2020, Ontario’s minimum wage rises to $14.25 per hour. Ever-rising labour costs and uncertain access to qualified labour are driving grape growers to mechanize where possible.
“Labour is an ongoing global issue,” says Joe Pillitteri, owner of Lakeview Vineyard Equipment, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. “Growers are looking at the costs of production per tonne and per acre. And they’re pushing towards more mechanization.”
The newest technology in Gregoire grape harvesters, for example, offers on-board sorting and weighing and on-the-go, yield-mapping technology. Like grain harvesters, these machines offer live read-outs on yield in the field.
What has changed during the summer months is how Lakeview Vineyard Equipment is servicing new customers. Pillitteri explains that they are taking videos of specific environments so that there’s a record of how machines perform by grape varietal, trellis type, crop load and weather conditions.
“There is no blanket approach when it comes to grapes,” says Pillitteri.
Videos as well as invitation-only demonstrations are the new way of technology transfer. These are intimate gatherings of six to 10 qualified buyers – no entertainment on offer.
Lakeview Vineyard Equipment has had an extremely busy summer, says Pillitteri who has logged thousands of kilometres visiting customers on both Canadian and American sides of the border. So busy, in fact, that he’s looking to hire service technicians.
His customer Ernie Wiens totally understands that equipment breakdowns require parts from out-of-country suppliers. That’s why Wiens is evaluating improvements and upgrades to equipment for the 2021 season because some factories are behind in production.
All of this to say that growers are facing hitches in both mechanical and hand labour. No one understands that conundrum better than Matthias Oppenlaender, chair, Grape Growers of Ontario. He manages 250 acres of his own Huebel Estates vineyards with mechanical harvesters and does custom work for another 500 acres – a size that employs 10 full-time workers, 23 seasonal workers and 50 domestic workers. During the chaotic COVID-spring, his team created family units, keeping workers separate in housing and physically distanced in vineyards.
“One thing I learned from our Mexican workers was how sensitive they were to the negative publicity in mainstream media about COVID outbreaks amongst seasonal workers,” recounts Oppenlaender. “They highly value and cherish their work and contributions to the community. They felt blamed.”
The pandemic revealed other fault lines. With the collapse of international tourism and in-house tastings, wineries have turned to the domestic market. For those wineries without an online presence and pre-COVID database of loyal customers, it’s been a struggle. But for those wineries which could reallocate resources to fulfilling online orders, the results have been heartwarming.
During the COVID lockdown, Ontario wine sales were up 5.1 per cent in volume and value. Consumers have demonstrated a willingness to buy local. The caveat is that premium reserve varietals and ice wine are not enjoying the same level of devotion. In fact, wineries have cancelled orders for the ice wine harvest for 2020/2021.
Most of these issues were crystallized in the fifth year of a benchmarking study conducted by VQA and Deloitte. Released in March 2020, the Ontario Wine and Grape Industry Performance Study reported that the province’s 500 growers had five major challenges: rising costs of inputs/labour/land; grape pricing; access to virus-free grape vines; government regulations and cost of compliance; and lack of long-term grape contracts.
It's certain that these issues will dominate in the years ahead, as the grape sector grapples with a quickly changing business environment domestically along with the buffeting winds of foreign jurisdictions. Australia, for example, sells $176 million worth of wine to Canada every year, but accused British Columbia and Ontario governments of favouring local wines through licensed grocers. Its World Trade Organization challenge was partially resolved this past summer when the Canadian government announced a repeal of the current excise tax of $0.665 per litre on any wine that has as little as one per cent of its juice from foreign grapes. All the more reason for Canadian wines to be derived from 100% locally grown grapes when that tax structure changes in June, 2022.
As a seasoned hand in the grape business, Ernie Wiens dips his refractometer into a bin of Chardonnay grapes. It’s from the first row of a block that’s just been opened up. He’s an optimist by nature, but says, “There’s still a lot of weather ahead of us.”
Bets are that he’s referring to more than the weather specifically but also the business climate generally.