Once, wine meant horse-drawn plows and barefoot workers stomping in a tub. These days, winemakers are more likely to depend on the juice running through their personal computers as they turn grapes into premium vintages. From software in the cellar to GPS-equipped tractors in the vineyard, a new crop of vintners is getting wired, and shortening their learning curves.
For Murphy, a retired Hewlett-Packard executive, blending vinery and binary systems was a natural step when he built Clos LaChance next to a lavish resort and golf course in San Martin, about 20 miles south of San Jose, California.
He installed probes that transmit data on humidity, rainfall and wind speed into a computer system, showing how vines are faring and how they may be affected by weather conditions.
In the cellar, software tracks the fruit from vineyard to bottle, streamlining record-keeping and making it easier to calculate and identify blends. Computers also allow winemaker Stephen Tebb to program fermentation cycles by controlling the temperature in each tank.
Putting some byte in their grapes seems to be working out. Clos LaChance has picked up a number of medals and was named one of 10 U.S. “Wineries to Watch” in the October edition of Food and Wine magazine.
“It’s pretty sophisticated farming,” says Bruce Cakebread, chief operating officer of his family’s Cakebread Cellars in the Napa Valley. His tools include digital cameras that measure subtle differences in visible and infrared light, a technology called multispectral imaging. Airborne photographers take images of the vineyards at different times of the year and the images are compared to assess the health of the vines and decide when to harvest.
What science can do is help with things like deciding when and where to irrigate. To answer that question, the Robert Mondavi Winery has teamed up with the University of California, Berkeley, to use experimental ground-penetrating radar to map soil moisture.
Using a machine about the size of a vacuum cleaner, researchers sent electromagnetic pulses into the ground and successfully determined different moisture levels. The next step will be finding funds to study how much influence the technique has on grape quality, says Susan Hubbard, a UC-Berkeley research engineer.
Tractors carry another bit of vineyard wizardry computers equipped with GPS satellite technology that signal the driver just when cultivating equipment should be engaged to create a more uniform vineyard. (Weaker areas are cultivated to get rid of weeds, while grass is left where vines are strongest to reduce growth.)
Mondavi even teamed with NASA on a project using images from satellites as well as from single-engine aircraft to monitor vineyards. Mondavi uses aerial photography along with GIS mapping to get a precise snapshot of vineyard development, right down to the density of leaf area.
As the home of both the Napa and Silicon valleys, California is an enthusiastic proponent of precision viticulture. But some of these tools are being put to use in vineyards around the world.
Conformia Software Inc., which makes the grape-tracking software Murphy uses at Clos LaChance, is working with other wineries in the United States and Australia.
Conformia’s WinePRO software tracks grapes from the vineyard block where they were picked, noting characteristics such as variety and sugar levels, known as Brix, and follows the fruit all the way to the bottle.
Proponents of vine tech like their clicks-and-Brix approach, but say winemaking involves as much art as science. For example, Murphy can get real-time soil data on his computer, but still likes to kick the dirt himself to see if things are in balance.