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Manteca part of top producing county
Mechanical harvesters and gondolas move up and down the rows of grapes at the Gallager Vineyards field along Oleander Avenue. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO/Bulletin Correspondent

These are busy days for Sherri Gallagher Bogetti. It’s the height of the grape harvest, and she’s right in the thick of overseeing the grape-picking activity taking place on the family’s 100-acre Gallagher Vineyards in Manteca. 

Not all of the vine-ripened juicy fruits are hand-picked though. A good percentage of the crop destined for various area wineries are harvested mechanically.

The tall and noisy mechanical grape harvesters were deployed in the Gallagher grape fields at Oleander Avenue and Coelho Drive late last week, with several agricultural machinery and seasonal workers hard at work in the early evening.

The machine harvesters pick the grapes by straddling the vines as they move down the rows, shaking the grapes from the vines in the process and spitting off the fruits with precision onto gondolas that are driven in tandem along with the harvester. Once filled, the gondolas’ cargo are dumped into a waiting truck that will deliver the grapes to the winery. For the Gallagher grapes, the winery destinations are Woodbridge in Acampo, Ironstone in Murphys, and Herzog in Ventura County.

It was a cool evening when machine and men and women from Pacific Agri Lands in Modesto worked at the Gallagher Vineyards site on Oleander, their silhouettes standing out in dramatic sharp relief against the sparse colorful clouds that sprayed the slowly darkening evening sky. Night is the perfect time for machines to harvest the grapes because the cooler temperature makes it easier for the fruit to come off the vines. Cooler fruit during night harvest also delays fermentation thereby allowing more time to get them transported in a controlled fermentation process at the winery.

When the crew got done at Oleander, their next stop was the Gallagher vineyard at Coelho on North Union Road.

Hand-picked grapes will be gathered in a few days. These are hand-packed in 38-pound boxes and destined for distribution in places out of state by middlemen. They are the same varieties as the mechanically harvested berries — Muscat Hamburg and Symphony — the only varieties grown by Gallagher Vineyards.

Next generation

grape grower

Bogetti’s father, Donald Gallagher, literally planted the first seeds of what is known today as Gallagher Vineyards soon after moving to Manteca from Livermore more than half a century ago.

“He started with a 20-acre piece, then slowly he was able to purchase other ranches to expand,” in the process, becoming part of the growth that pushed grapes to the number slot of San Joaquin County’s Top Ten commodities that was valued at $395,541,000 in 2017 according to the latest report from the county’s Agricultural Commissioner. (That was actually down from the figures of 2016 which was $425,781,000.)

During the early years of Gallagher Vineyards, Bogetti’s father continued to work at Sandia National Labs in Livermore as a supervisor. After working there for 32 years, he retired which allowed him to focus on his entrepreneurship with the company he formed, the family business that was his passion and the career that he truly enjoyed.

After he passed away after a short illness in May of this year, the farming responsibility totally fell on the shoulders of Bogetti. “It’s me” who is in charge now, she said, but her mother, 82-year-old Shirley, is also still involved to a certain extent albeit not in any of the actual duties that come with running the outfit. However, “I keep her in the loop” about what’s going on with the business, said Bogetti, who formerly worked for Wells Fargo and with the Manteca Unified School District before going to work in the family business.

While she took over the job only after her father passed away, Bogetti worked alongside her father for a number of years and getting her feet wet in running and managing the family business.

“We’ve been working together, probably for a good 10 to 12 years. He always would say, ‘oh, you gotta be taking over soon,’” she recalled.

Little did they know that was something that would happen sooner instead of later, she mournfully said.

Business challenges

But Bogetti was ready to meet the responsibilities and challenges with the help of her husband Robert, and Gallagher Vineyards’ longtime reliable foreman, Jaime Plascencia.

Economics is foremost among the challenges, Bogetti said. You always have to “watch what you spend because you aren’t always sure” what the returns would be.

“We’ve always tried to have a contract with the grapes so it’s not so stressful during harvest. This year is horrible for people because the wineries are just not buying a lot of the grapes,” and considering there are many grape growers who have not yet picked all of their crops, “it’s kind of scary; the wineries are full. There’s so much bulk,” she said.

With the expected surplus next year, that means they are not going to be bringing money next year, she noted.

The other big challenge of being a grape grower is the perennial chores needed to maintain the vineyards. It starts with the pruning in winter — “it takes a lot of time doing that” - then on to deploying the “spray program” once the grape vines start to bud in spring, followed by harvest in the summer/fall.

“It’s crazy, just trying to line up everything,” she said.

“So, yes, it’s challenging, stressful,” she admitted. “But it’s rewarding when you’re out there watching the harvest. That’s very rewarding — watching the juice pouring into the gondolas, the tanks. That’s nice.”

Laughing, she added, “And the most rewarding — just drinking the wine.”

That and “just walking around the vineyard. It’s just so relaxing. It’s beautiful.”

Bogetti doesn’t shirk from the hands-on part of the business either. When foreman Plascencia, who does most of the tractor work, gets to a point where he gets overwhelmed due to a number of factors such as bad weather, Bogetti said she and her husband simply “hop on another tractor. If we have to do it round the clock, then we take turns. When you are working with Mother Nature, you don’t make the calls.”

That could be rain during harvest, frost in spring which burns the shoots that are starting to develop and grow thereby guaranteeing you won’t have a crop to harvest.

“It’s a gamble; it’s rolling the dice when you can’t control Mother Nature. You don’t have control over everything; just roll over the punches,” said Bogetti who learned everything she knows today from working with her father. Her brother Steve, who was her senior by five years, was actually the one who had the educational background, having studied onology at the University of California, Davis. Sadly, he passed away in a car accident in 1994.

Next generation 

grape farmers

The next generation though is eager and ready for the task of keeping Gallagher Vineyards alive and thriving into the future. Her daughter Mindy Neto, a graduate of Sierra High School, is going to college to become an onologist. Right out of high school, Neto went to work as a hair stylist. She gave up that job to go to junior college full time.

Her main motivation to becoming an onologist? “She just really enjoys drinking wine,” said Bogetti, who also has a son, half-jokingly with a laugh.

Asked if there are any plans at this point or in the future about expanding Gallagher Vineyards, Bogetti’s answer was in the negative.

It’s a nice little livelihood for family, but bigger is not always better,” she responded.