Growth allows Oliver Winery to invest in big equipment

Oliver Winery's newest addition to the staff is a sticky monster of a machine that has helped tear through this year's harvest, and it serves as a gleaming testament to the brand's longevity.

Marking the transition from hand-picking, Oliver Winery's newest harvester shows how far the state's oldest and largest winery has come.

Near the start of this year's harvest season at Oliver Winery's 54-acre Creekbend Vineyard, president Bill Oliver found that his business had reached a point where purchasing a $300,000 Pellenc 8050 series towed harvester was finally economically viable. This year's wine harvest—a process which typically runs from the end of August to the second week of October—promises to be a bit less anxiety-inducing thanks to a decision that has been slowly processing over the past five years.

"We've been toying around with this for a while," said Oliver, who leads the company located off State Road 37 between Bloomington and Martinsville. "There's a lot of things you can spend that money on. Back five years ago, we just had other, more pressing priorities."

Oliver was founded in 1960s as a hobby by Bill Oliver's father, Indiana University law professor William Oliver. Oliver played a key role in Indiana passing the Indiana Small Winery Act in 1971, which allowed his hobby to become a full-fledged business.

Today, Oliver is the largest winery east of the Mississippi River. It began selling wine outside of Indiana for the first time in 2002 and now distributes products in 18 different states. The company became 100-percent employee-owned in 2006 through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. It offers more than 50 varieties of wine.   

Bernie Parker, vineyard manager at Creekbend, was involved in the early, investigative part of the purchasing process of the harvester. Having been given a trial run with a comparable, self-propelled model by the company out of Oregon, Parker has had his own experiences as operator. After spending four hours with the technician, he was left with a very expensive piece of equipment and a final word of advice: "Call if you have any problems."

"I think he wanted me to either love it or break it so we'd have to buy it," said Parker. "We spent about three hours driving around the vineyard in an area where we didn't have any vines, just getting a handle on how it maneuvers, what we have to do to get it straight and making sure we aren't breaking any posts. They're pretty self-intuitive, especially the self-propelled; this one is a bit more involved."

"I've had too much experience with fancy equipment not to realize it's not always exactly what the sales guy tells you it's going to be," said Oliver. "There's always some learning curve and bugs to work out initially, and that really hasn't been the case here. It has been remarkably easy to figure out how to operate; no glitches, no mechanical issues. Along with this, we got some equipment at the winery to sort the leaves and whatnot out of it, all the stems and stem pieces."

With only 5 acres, or 10 percent, of the harvesting remaining and two weeks left in the season, it's clear that the addition of new technology was a factor in the harvest's success. The quantity of fruit harvested isn't the only factor improved by the harvester. The winery can now be more careful with its picking in accordance with weather and temperature conditions that affect the end product.

"Harvesting had always been that, 'drove us nuts' kind of thing. It was so much of a labor-management issue and a timing issue," said Oliver. "Now, that anxiety is just gone. We'll get it done, and we'll get it done on time. This just made our lives a heck of a lot more pleasant. When you get something like this, you really kind of figure out what the other weak links are, because now, we can pick so much, so quickly, it gets backed up at the winery."

Though 2.3 miles per hour may seem like crawling pace, the machine can navigate over vine trellises more than seven feet high and harvest anywhere from three to seven tons of fruit per hour, according to Parker.

"I would be hard pressed to get about four acres done in one day, and I would have to get 70 to 80 people to do that operation. With this, I can start at 5 a.m., and I will have 10 to 12 acres done by 4, and I'm only using four people," said Parker.

And while it would be a superhuman feat for those workers to carry 1,500 pounds of fruit, this harvester can carry twice that quantity.

But, as is the case with any adoption of technology, the fear of job loss may leave more than the vines shaking. According to Parker, the impact will be minor, and the one or two extra people they annually hire around harvest time will no longer be necessary. The company has more than 80 employees.

"In the long run, the potential of being able to grow more grapes because we now have solved our main issue, that adds employment here," said Oliver. "I'm just excited to be using Monroe County grapes, and this is a testament to our commitment to it. It's a lot easier to buy fruit from West Coast vendors, but we're bound and determined to make this work in a significant way in terms of quantity and quality. Plus, it's fun."

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