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By September 22, 2017 0 Comments Read More →

New Machine Uses Gravity to Meet Grape Sorting Challenges

By Dawn Dolan

Could the French Tribaie be the next big thing for ensuring quality of wine with its unique grape-sorting process?

This time of year Northern California is focused on grapes and the quality and condition in which they arrive at the winery:  brix level, flavor profiles, seed color, bird damage, rot. To ensure quality, many wineries engaged in grape sorting, and at the basic level, that sorting starts with labor – a scarce commodity in California at this time.

A new option in the US market is the Tribaie Grape Sorter, made by the French company Amos Industrie, and Staglin Family Vineyard, a high-end winery in Rutherford, Napa Valley is the first U.S. winery to buy the Tribaie grape sorting machine.

Normally the first line of quality control is hand-sorting; that is, removing all visible leaves, debris, and obviously bad bunches before the grapes hit the crusher/destemmer. Used for millennia, this process is constrained by the shortage of labor, and even in premier grape-growing areas labor issues push more and more wineries to use machine harvesters.

The machine-harvested grapes come in very clean of debris (the machine harvester blows off the greenery), and sans stem, making the labor needed to sort at a basic level superfluous.

The owners of Staglin Family Vineyard were impressed by the Tribaie at a wine show in France and decided to invest in the machine. Company representative Gilles Deschamps was on hand for the trial of the new machine at Staglin during their Cabernet harvest, along with Paolo Bouchard of Bouchard Cooperage, the machine’s American importer.

The Tribaie offered a commanding presence on the crush pad. Using specific gravity to sort grapes, the machine bathes grapes in an infinity pool of sugar water, which the winemaker adjusts to her preferred brix level. Grapes not dense enough due to lack of appropriate ripeness, float to the top of the solution and are siphoned off.

Optical sorters that employ high-speed cameras and image-processing software to quickly scan and sort destemmed grapes; eliminating grapes that are lacking in color and shape have received some criticism for removing good grapes inadvertently, and they struggle with white wine variety grapes. However, the Tribaie works equally for white and red grapes, as the machine uses density, not appearance, as a control.

First the de-stemmed grapes are fed into the hopper, where matter other than grapes is siphoned off immediately. Grapes are then led into a five-channel feeder, dispersing grapes into the bath in an orderly and even arrangement. Grapes not meeting the specific gravity settings, or those that are broken, float at the top, and are siphoned into one bin. Winemakers may choose to use these grapes for a secondary wine production.

Grapes exiting the machine are clean, the layer of dust coating grapes this time of year washed away, and all at or above the pre-determined brix level. The sugar bath responsible for the specific gravity should be checked approximately every two hours, and can be recalibrated as needed.

Each machine is made to order by Amos Industrie, who makes many types of winery and fruit harvesting equipment. They started with their first such machine seventeen years ago, and currently have 105 machines operating in France. Asked if they were specifically targeting Napa and Sonoma Counties where the average price per bottle is far higher here than anywhere else in the US, Deschamps replied that they are targeting, “anyone who wants top quality, reserve wines.”

Taking hand-harvested or mechanically picked grapes equally, Tribaie can eliminate labor expenses of sorting, while improving wine quality, which seems cost beneficial. However the overall price of the machine may prove prohibitive to wineries that produce wines at lower volume and price point, or are satisfied with their current product.

First and foremost, for the Tribaie to be effective the winemaker must call harvest before grapes become too ripe. “This machine is not for overripe grapes coming in at higher than 27* brix”, notes Deschamps, “and for wineries who are harvesting fewer hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres), it probably doesn’t make sense.”

Offered in two sizes, Amos Industrie will be showcasing their larger Tribaie at the North Coast Wine Industry Expo, held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on November 30 this year. Although the first vintage of Staglin Family Vineyards wine won’t be available for a taste test, Gilles Deschamps will be on hand to discuss the machine with interested parties. He notes that a designated technician is already in place in the USA for the first Tribaie, and those to follow.

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