September 2007 Issue of Wines & Vines

Technology With Traction

Six innovations that can lighten your load

by Thomas Ulrich

  • Combining PDAs, GPS and GIS helps vineyard managers see the big picture.
  • Aerial imaging detects small differences in plant growth.
  • Wireless vineyard technology is already a reality.
  • Automated lab tests are quicker and more reliable.
  • Natural gas microturbines increase energy efficiency.
Forward-thinking winemakers and vineyard managers are now using a number of technological innovations--to save money and improve the quality of their products--that others in the wine industry have been slow to embrace. Many of these innovations are no longer just for pioneers and early adopters, however. To expose Wines & Vines readers to six tech tools that have proven their usefulness, we interviewed the people now using them.

PDA/GPS in the field

Handheld computers first appeared in the vineyards a decade ago. They reported data as a single entry, much like the field notebooks that they replaced. Today, these powerful tools can help vineyard and winery staff develop the wide range of information they now collect into a comprehensive vision for how they should operate the winery.

Seven Hills Vineyard in Milton-Freewater, Ore., grows grapes for sale to premium wineries. This spring, Bob Buchanan, general manager, and Chris Banek, senior viticulturist, handed vineyard managers Lupe Gomez and Francisco Jimenez personal digital assistants (PDAs) equipped with global positioning systems (GPS), SureHarvest's geographical information system (GIS) software and a barcode reader. The global positioning system is a satellite-based device that allows them to determine the exact latitude and longitude of each test site in the vineyard. The SureHarvest software presents information much the way reference maps use translucent overlays to add layers of detail to the display. Together, they synchronize data so that the vineyard staff and the winemaker can rapidly analyze data collected in the field.

Technology With Traction
The Seven Hills Team views its vineyard grid layout on this GPS monitor and uses it to guide a tractor with sub-inch accuracy.
The PDA , GPS, GIS combination (shown below, right) helps the vineyard management and development team establish relationships among a number of biological, chemical and cultural conditions in the vineyard. Team members can download a location that specifies data for an individual vine or a 5-acre block. The vineyard staff can review soil type, irrigation patterns, leaf canopy, clusters per vine and berries per cluster, for example, and then determine how to balance these elements to produce the highest quality grapes.

Eventually, they will scan all types of information from the vineyard directly into the PDAs. When they return to the winery from sampling in the field, they will download information such as bud break dates, soil moisture, weight at lag phase and number of clusters per vine into winery computers. Then Buchanan, Banek and the vineyard management and development team can analyze years of related data instead of one item at a time.

"We have been collecting this sort of information manually for a long time," Buchanan says. "However, our ability to see the big picture was cumbersome, and sometimes not very clear. With timely information now built into our (winery) database, we can see trends and the effects of our management decisions."

Monitoring from a desktop

When vintners introduced computers to winemaking more than two decades ago, they gathered data such as Brix, pH and titratable acidity. Today, a new generation of winemakers collects more than isolated information. These winemakers have integrated computer technology into the production process.

Technology With Traction
"I can program a change in the temperature of the must three days ahead of time."
--Stephen Tebb, Clos LaChance
Stephen Tebb, the winemaker at Clos LaChance in San Martin, Calif., (60,000 cases per year) tracks the 2007 harvest from the vineyard to the bottling room while sitting at his desktop computer. He can manage production, even influence the flavor of the wine from an office that overlooks the laboratory, fermentation tanks and aging room.

Tebb and enologist Erica O'Brien exchange winery and vineyard data with a few strokes of a computer keyboard. She tests and he evaluates the vintage from the moment the grapes ripen to the day that they reach the bottling room.

With the click of a mouse--not the turn of a dial--he adjusts the temperature of the must fermenting in a 6,000-gallon tank. He selects an icon and then types a temperature value into a dialogue box that appears on his computer screen. A desktop PC and Logix software drive the fermentation tank. The fermentation tank is manufactured by Santa Rosa Stainless. According to the winemaker, the PC and the fermenation tank are standard. The software requires more effort to set up.

Such technology allows Tebb to keep up with the harvest. "I can program a change in the temperature of the must that is already fermenting three days ahead of time. That way, I can focus on the grapes coming in from the vineyard every day."

His desktop computer cools and then warms the must contained in the fermentation tanks. At first, it lowers the temperature of the fermenting grapes. As the ambient temperature drops, it gently heats the tank to initiate the secondary fermentation.

Using a portable computer, O'Brien transmits the enzymatic analysis and malic acid concentration of the must to Tebb, who decides how soon after the crush to begin the malolactic fermentation.

Tebb can control the temperature during fermentation to extract the most flavor from the grapes, or retain the fruity esters and volatile compounds that would otherwise evaporate.

"Our goal is to measure and manage as many variables as possible," Tebb says, "then drive the production process toward the style of wine we want to produce."

Computer-enhanced sensing

Remote earth sensing came of age when NASA launched the Earth Resources Technology Satellite or Landsat-1 on July 23, 1972. The satellite carried a multi-spectral scanner that measured the change from spring to summer vegetation across the Great Plains region of the central U.S. Today, remote sensing has become a valuable tool for premium vintners and winegrape growers to gauge the health of their vineyards.

Technology With Traction
Jay Hutton at GrayHawk creates Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) images with a digital, multi-spectral camera and computer programs to pinpoint unhealthy or dormant vines from an altitude of 10,000 feet.
Jay Hutton, owner of GrayHawk--an NDVI imaging, remote sensing and aerial photography company, maps vineyards in Napa, Sonoma and Santa Ynez valleys as well as the North Coast of California from a single-engine Cessna equipped with GPS navigation. He creates NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) images from 10,000 feet with a digital multi-spectral camera and special computer programs for transforming reflection image data into NDVI imagery.

The computer calculates pixel values for the red wave band and the near infrared band images. It divides the combined image into different color classifications based upon NDVI values. The bands represent the photosynthetic capacity of the vines compared to the standard infrared wavelength.

Technicians can mathematically manipulate the image to examine the differences among plants that absorb different levels of red wavelengths of light. The leaves of healthy growing vines reflect a low level of red wavelengths, and will generate a higher value on the NDVI scale. Dormant or unhealthy vines will appear as low values on the NDVI scale.

The technology is sophisticated enough to recognize small differences in plant growth from changes in nutrition, leaf area, soil properties and irrigation patterns. "NDVI imaging is a major driver for winemakers and vineyard managers to use scientific applications by relating NDVI values to biological characteristics within a vineyard block," Hutton says.

It is a first step toward modeling relationships between water-holding capacities of the soil, leaf area, vine weights and lengths, percent of vine cover, percent of shaded area, and the crop coefficient, for example. The technology permits vineyard managers to track irrigation, mulching, mowing, tilling, disease and differential harvesting for each sub-block in the vineyard.

"NDVI imaging can help vineyard managers fine-tune irrigation patterns to bring blocks to a stress level that peaks for a particular site and help winemakers choose which sub-blocks of grapes to blend," Hutton says. An NDVI block image, an infrared image and a grayscale image cost $6-10 per acre from GrayHawk.

Wireless technology

Scheid Vineyards, a Central Coast grower in Salinas, Calif., and producer of 5,000 cases of wine a year, installed five computer-controlled weather stations in its vineyards after years of gathering weather data by hand.

The weather stations are part of Scheid's vineyard-wide wireless network that continuously transmits vineyard data to company computers every 15 minutes. With the click of a mouse, winemakers can access timely information about specific vineyard blocks and vines via handheld computers or wireless laptops. They can view information about weather conditions, the percentage of sugar in ripening vines, soil moisture, vine stress and irrigation profiles, for example.

Technology With Traction
A video camera and microwave transceiver antenna are powered by a solar panel; mounted atop a trailer, the set-up is controlled and monitored from Scheid's VitWatch website.
The network also includes solar-powered video cameras that can help winemakers evaluate the overall condition of the vineyard. They can watch irrigation water drip from emitters, evaluate the canopy, or zoom in on an individual vine, leaf or berry.

The 80-mile span of the broadband network allows a manager in the field to review a crop report from a laptop computer, write a work order and hand it off to the crew.

Wireless access to the scale allows the vineyard manager to review the weight of each lot of grapes as it arrives from the vineyard. The scale identifies each lot by bar code. It automatically labels the grapes with a weight tag and transmits the information to a company computer.

Samples from each lot undergo a fully automated analysis for Brix, pH and TA, which is sent to an information screen, reviewed by a technician and released to the database. The winemaker can assess the quality of the harvested grapes before they reach the winery.

Laboratory analysis

In the winery and the vineyard, 21st-century technology gives the winemaker and vineyard manager the information they need to take control of the way they grow, ferment, bottle and age the 2007 vintage.

Scott Shirley, associate winemaker for the Hess Collection Winery in Napa, Calif., (25,000 cases per year) draws on information from three scientific instruments to evaluate the fermentation of the must and the potential of the finished wine. He uses an autotitrator, near infrared spectrometer and automated spectrophotometer to measure concentrations of alcohol, nitrogen, sugar and titratable acidity (TA).

He measures the amount of nitrogen in the must and sugars (glucose and fructose) or malic acid concentrations in the wine with the automated spectrophotometer. The nitrogen level helps him determine what nutrient to add. The malic acid concentration allows him to track the secondary fermentation.

Once the fermentation is complete, he measures the alcohol concentration with the near infrared spectrometer and the TA and pH with an autotitrator. They become part of a chemical profile that follows the barrel of wine throughout the aging process.

"These machines automate a process that was time-consuming and not nearly as accurate," Shirley says. "Technology makes the analyses quicker and more reliable. I can make more informed decisions that ultimately result in better wine."

Power generation

The price of fuel and the external costs of growing and fermenting grapes have winemakers reconsidering their impact on the planet. Some winemakers have chosen to farm closer to the earth. Others, like Chuck McMinn, have recalculated the energy equation.

McMinn, former product manager at Intel and founder of Covad Communications, electrified his vineyards and winery when he purchased Vineyard 29 and Aida vineyards and built the mountain winery two miles north of St. Helena during the early part of this century.

Technology With Traction
Weather stations at Monterey County's Scheid Vineyards are now computer controlled, eliminating the need to gather weather data by hand.
An information-age pioneer, McMinn wired the vineyard with moisture sensors and remotely operating weather stations, and his fermentation tanks with computer-controlled thermostats. "Technology does make a difference," he says, "because we are better able to measure and control the process to make consistently high quality wine."

To cool and humidify the cellar and generate electricity to drive production, McMinn installed the first cogeneration plant at a U.S. winery. Two microturbines burn natural gas producing 120 kilowatts of power and heat, a waste product that converts water to steam, boosting energy efficiency from 30% to 82% and reducing the probability of losing power during the crush.

With his power plant seven times less polluting than conventional technology, and half the cost per kilowatt hour, cogeneration makes sense for the winery and the community. "The investment will pay for itself in five years," McMinn says. The cost of the cogeneration plant was $600,000, less a $120,000 rebate from a state Public Utility Commission fund.

Based in Silicon Valley, Thomas Ulrich has written news, features and advertising copy for Time magazine, the Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times. He was a senior writer for Hewlett-Packard for many years and was a contributing editor for Sun Microsystems. He teaches journalism at San Jose State University. Contact him through
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