Grapes: How do you get them from the vine to the wine press? You pick 'em, of course. Until the middle of the 20th century, grape harvesting was done much the same as it was in Biblical days: by hand.
A labor-intensive task carried out by a large work force, the traditional grape harvest required grapes to be hand-picked, carried to vats between rows, lifted high enough to dump into wagons, then moved to the press. It was back-breaking work. According to Leonard Mecca, Lake Worth, Fla., modern technology was slow to arrive in the vineyard.
But mechanization was inevitable. By the late 1960s, farm workers were increasingly hard to find and labor costs were high. Although a few attempts were made to find a way to harvest grapes for wineries, most of the effort focused on devising a way to lift heavy vats of harvested fruit into wagons.
In the late 1960s, Leonard's father, Vito Mecca of North Collins, N.Y., began development of a machine to shake grapes from clusters on the vines. Vito owned a John Deere dealership in North Carolina but also maintained a large vineyard. Looking to balance the demands of operating both enterprises, he needed a less labor-intensive way to harvest his grape crop. He began designing his own grape harvester.
"By trial and error, my dad built a contraption that straddled a row of grapes and shook them loose," Leonard recalls. "That first year during harvest, dad kept a mechanic and welder with the machine. It almost shook itself apart."
Vito designed the machine - dubbed the Mecca-Nized grape harvester - to be completely hydraulically operated: the shaking mechanism, steering, conveyors, blowers and leveling device. A 50 hp tractor is required to pull the harvester, and an additional tractor pulls a wagon alongside to carry the grapes.
The harvester is outfitted with a hydraulic pumping system (which attaches to the tractor), and a series of hydraulic motors operate the various components. By using hydraulics, the speed of each operating system is regulated to attain the most efficient operation.
It is a two-wheeled machine, rather like a large trailer, with hydraulically operated cylinders attached to each wheel to raise or lower each side independently. (That keeps the unit level while harvesting hillside grapes.) The unit can be lowered to just 15 inches off the ground so even low-hanging grapes are harvested.
To ensure all grapes are shaken loose from the vines, a double row of pivoted, spring-loaded paddles or plates (quite like fish scales) are mounted near ground level, attached to spring-loaded pivots that allow grape vines and trellis to pass through yet keep the fruit from dropping to the ground and being lost.
Down the center of the harvester, Vito positioned a series of long fingers that shake rapidly to loosen grapes from their clusters. Grapes drop onto the pivoted paddles (fruit catchers) below, which serve as a gathering platform from which the fruit rolls to the outer sides of the harvester.
Recessed on each side is a rubberized conveyor belt with rubber-coated metal cups to move grapes from the front of the unit to the rear, then topside to another conveyor. At each elevator, Vito mounted a fan to blow away lightweight stems, leaves and debris. The upper conveyor and elevator transfer grapes and juice to a rubberized spout and discharge into a wagon.
One of the harvester's most intriguing features is its cornering ability. "That includes a hydraulic drawbar that enables the machine to turn at the end of a row in a headland of only 15 feet," Leonard notes. That feature allows adequate space at the end of the row for turning without damaging standing vines.
The Mecca-Nized grape harvester could harvest up to 2-1/2 acres of grapes per hour, a significant advantage over handpicking.
All of the machines were built in Buffalo, N.Y. (Vito's only real competitor in that era manufactured self-propelled grape harvesters in Niagara Falls, N.Y.) Vito produced more than 300 units from 1968 to 1978. They were sold primarily in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, California and Ontario, Canada. He also found an overseas market: Leonard says about 17 harvesters were sent to Australia, 12 to France and at least one to South Africa. Overseas manufacturers still build similar machines, and many Mecca harvesters remain in use.
Vito applied for a patent for the harvester, but the process drug on for years. A year after his death in 1988 the patent was awarded. "Unfortunately, at that time the grape market was in such bad shape that it wasn't feasible to pursue the building of the harvesters," Leonard recalls. "As I recall, when the patent was being applied for, Vito was afraid he might not be able to build any more harvesters if the court ruled against him. So he built about 30 extra to have on hand, and that is why he was still selling harvesters four years after production ended."
Leonard held on to one of the final Mecca-Nized units made and keeps it in a museum on the grounds of the Florida Flywheelers near Fort Meade, Fla. He puts the harvester on display during the club's shows. When and if you get to the Florida Flywheelers show, stop by and take a look at this unusual machine. Leonard is always there during the show and he will be happy to tell you more about it. FC
James N. Boblenz grew up on a farm near New Bloomington, Ohio. He now lives in Marion, Ohio, and is interested in antique farm equipment, particularly rare and lesser-known tractors and related items. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org