HARVESTING LIGHT: WINEMAKING TECHNOLOGY

By Tim Carl

Modern winemakers have a vast array of new tools to help improve wine quality at nearly every level, from optimizing grapevine hydration to mechanical harvesters and DNA fingerprinting. More than ever, winemakers must be a blend of artist, farmer, scientist and computer geek to keep up with the latest technologies.

“Producing the highest quality wine starts with healthy grapes,” said Garrett Buckland, a winemaker and partner at Premiere Viticultural Services in Napa. “But today, there are lots of tools out there that can help in the process. In our company we deploy a whole range of options to assist our clients in their decision-making.”

Buckland and his family have been growing grapes for generations, and his reputation in the Napa Valley is for being at the leading edge of innovative approaches to growing grapes and winemaking. One of the technologies they use is sap-flow sensors developed by a technology startup called Fruition Science.

“Wine used to be made mostly in the cellar,” said Thibaut Scholasch, the co-founder of Fruition. “But more and more, technology is helping vintners take a plant-based approach to winemaking.”

Scholasch grew up in France but moved to the United States in the late 1990s and began working for Mondavi.

“I’m a winemaker and have a Ph.D. in plant physiology,” he said. “When I got to Mondavi, I first started working in the cellar, but soon I was out in the vineyards helping to improve farming practices. I realized there was a need for real-time data in viticulture and so we started our company.”

Scholasch’s company deploys its high-tech sensors to monitor hundreds of vineyards around the world, many of them in the Napa Valley. Their systems are powered by solar panels and communicate wirelessly through the Internet to the cloud where the data are analyzed and correlated with various measurements of quality. The findings are then used to alert winemakers, vineyard owners and managers through an app on their phones so that they might take action.

“Our monitors evaluate the vine’s hydration, and through our years of data collection we are able to improve grape quality and vine health at nearly every level. Beyond that we help our clients refine their irrigation schemes, often reducing the amount of water they use, therefore saving a valuable resource.”

Local vintners agree.

“We’ve been using Fruitions’ technology since 2006 — we were one of the first,” said Austin Peterson, winemaker at Napa Valley’s Ovid Winery. “Winemaking and grape growing are not exact sciences, but Fruition has helped shine a big light into the darkness. Their sensors take readings every 15 minutes, which provides near complete insight into the vine’s behavior, allowing us to know if we are on the right path or when we might need to adjust our practices.”

Beyond measuring the hydration of grapevines, nearly everything else about a vineyard can be tested and evaluated. This includes using satellite and drone imagery to evaluate photosynthetic and evaporation rates, micro-climate weather stations that track wind and rain and send out alerts for frost and mold pressure and soil probes that keep tabs on the root-zone moisture. And as is the case with Fruition’s apparatus, even individual vines can be fitted with a host of contraptions that can evaluate hydration, grape maturation and even plant-nutrition levels.

Even the picking of grapes has gone high-tech.

“We are using various technologies to help improve wine quality and consistency,” said Alisa Jacobson, winemaker at Joel Gott Wines. “Our goal is to make excellent wines that are also a good value to our customers, which means we are always looking for ways to improve efficiency.”

One key efficiency problem that has always plagued winemakers and vineyard owners alike is how to pick grapes at their optimal ripeness.

“It’s sometimes tough to get the crews out there to pick when you need them to — there’s just so much demand,” Jacobson said. “But using some of the new mechanical harvesters can really help.”

Is there any harm of using mechanical harvesters? Jacobson explained.

“Mechanical harvesters have really improved over the last few years, and the process is now extremely delicate with the grapes,” she said. “And if it’s a choice between getting the fruit in when its ripe versus getting it a week later, then there is really no choice at all. Besides, I like to get the fruit picked at night when it’s cold so that it comes into the winery without the sun beating down on it, and sometimes that can be tough for crews when harvest is in full swing. We can’t use this technology on all our vineyards, but I’m starting to appreciate it as a viable alternative when needed.”

There are also new mechanical harvesters that have optical sorters attached that can sort each berry, rejecting those that are underripe or otherwise flawed, she said.

Companies like ETS, Enologix and Wine Xray have tools to help advance the link between vines and wines, too. Each has a suite of evaluative assays for examining elements in both grapes and wine.

“Our technology allows winemakers to see what is going on with their wines as they ferment before any negative issues arise,” said Gordon Burns, co-owner of ETS Wine Labs in St. Helena. “It used to be we could evaluate why a wine failed after the fact, but now we can head off many issues before they become problems. We use various techniques to help provide a window into the process. For example, our DNA-fingerprinting tools allow a winemaker to get a handle on which yeast or other microbes are present and active.”

Because different yeasts provide different flavors and aromatic profiles, winemakers are keen to have certain populations most active during fermentation. And because other microbes might cause negative flavors or even cause the wine to go bad, DNA-fingerprinting can highlight when an unwanted microbe is present while at levels that they can be dealt with prior to causing any negative issues.

“We’re even seeing a lot of what are often called the ‘natural’ winemakers starting to use our technology,” said Burns. “Because these winemakers are reluctant to add much into their wine, taking a hands-off approach, they especially need to know what is going on in their wines before something harmful gets out of control.”

Although the trend toward more high-tech tools at a winemaker’s disposal does not seem to be waning, the goal still remains the same: Grow exceptional grapes and produce exceptional wines.

“Both wine-growing and making will always be intimately tied to the earth and the people who make it,” Scholasch said. “Technology only helps better understand and work with what is, at its core, a natural system. I see our jobs as assisting the grapevine’s natural ability to harvest light efficiently and effectively, and to provide vintners the ability to make better-informed choices.”

Although the tools used to make wine continue to expand, it seems that the magic of winemaking still remains in how to transform this harvested light into special wines that represents a place as unique as where they came from.

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Originally published in the Napa Register, January 21, 2016