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The Challenges of Owning a Small Vineyard in Suisun Valley ~ Andrews Vineyards

Frank Andrews of Andrews Vineyards is located on Andrews Lane in Suisun Valley. He also owns a cluster of small businesses in Suisun Valley under the Andrews Group umbrella. This is another family in Suisun Valley that’s defining their legacy with names of roads and businesses that bear the names of the owners. The entire valley has been created this way since the 1800s, and it begs the question, “How committed to the land are these people?”

And the answer is simple… Very committed.

If you were to spend any time at all in this small, bucolic appellation, you’d quickly learn that the people of Suisun Valley are the most passionately committed to their land than any land owner could possibly be, and Frank Andrews is no exception.

Today, with Frank being 88 years young, he still works every day with grape growing and with his Andrews Group. This also includes a machine shop. You’ll see later in this story that this machinist mentality has become an integral part of his doing the business of wine grape growing, and staying in the black to do it.

About 40 years ago, Frank Andrews bought 15 acres on Abernathy Lane. The land had the typical California fruit-of-the-times on the land. During the early 70s, apricots, peaches, and prunes ruled the day. Then, another 17 acres became available about eight or nine years later. This piece was adjacent to his existing property, so he bought that, too. Now, he had 32 acres of property from which he could farm. The second piece already had pears and apricots on it.

At that time, and being a smart business man, Frank Andrews knew that the cash crop was headed toward being in the wine grape business, not in fruit tree offerings. So, the fruit trees came out, and the wine grapes went in. Frank told me, as an after thought and in his dry humor, “Grape vines are better on a piece of property than having horses and cows.”

A man who completely respects Mother Nature, as most people who work with the land do, when asked about his viticultural practices, Frank said that he let the land make the decisions. That said, the popular varieties to plant, for supply and demand purposes back then, were Chardonnay and Merlot. Frank also added some Syrah to his vineyards. His vineyard breakdown is this:

  • 15 acres of Chardonnay
  • 7.5 acres of Merlot
  • 7.5 acres of Syrah

Now, all of this sound idyllic for anyone wanting to have vineyard property, but Frank’s story is one that many small grape growers are facing… The economy is depicting the struggles of a marketplace that is very unfriendly to any small grower… And 32 acres certainly qualifies as a small grower. Frank told me,

“Costs are out of sight. I’m not afraid to say that. A lot of people might be, but I’m not. I’m just telling it like it is. I have too much invested in this business to just pull out and convert my land to landscaping. I’m just going to wait it out.”

What Frank has done, trying to bring down his overhead, is to mechanize his vineyard operations. This is the point about where I wrote “You’ll see later in this story that this machinist mentality has become an integral part of his doing the business of wine grape growing, and staying in the black to do it.”

Frank already was clear that to replace people with machinery would cut his costs, but it wasn’t because of this that he converted to a mechanical harvester and a mechanical pruner. He converted because, as he says, “I spent $250,000 to convert to machinery, because of two reasons:

  1. The labor pool all but dried up.
  2. The machinery converted to $6/hour versus the $11/hour that pickers wanted.”

According to Frank, and there’s a lot to be said in favor of this,

“The Australians have automated just about everything. There are so many vineyards that are being picked with mechanical harvesters, and a lot of it is being done in the dead of the night. Nobody wants to talk about it, but it’s being done when no one’s seeing it. We even have a name for these guys, (and he chuckles…) They’re called Night Riders. We’re doing it because we have to survive.”

I once spoke with a viticulturist about machine harvesting, at a time that I thought there was nothing positive to be said for it. I was taught that a machine has vibrational settings. When it’s time for harvest, the grape growers sets the vibration for fruit he wants to harvest, according to ripeness. The vibration drops only the most ripe fruit from the rachis (the stem part that holds the cluster), leaving the rest of the not ripe fruit on the vine. This means that the fruit won’t have to go through a destemming process, won’t have to have a lot of MOG (material other than grapes) removed, really under fruit won’t be picked, etc. This seems to have its benefits for fruit receiving less manipulation. I understand what Frank is saying about not only is mechanical harvesting going to replace a lot of manual labor for a savings to the farmer (and the end cost of your wine grapes), but it’s also a case of less handling, which is beneficial to the fruit in the long run.

The bottom line is that Frank is wanting to keep his bottom line written in black; and at 88, he’s learned that patience does pay off… So he’s waiting as the grapes and the market grow sweet, again.

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