September 2009 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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From Soil To Sales

Clos LaChance integrates computer technology through its entire winery operation

 
by Thomas Ulrich
 
 
    HIGHLIGHTS
     

     
  • Integrating technology into vineyard and winery operations can improve efficiency.
     
  • Software that helps winemakers and production managers regulate processes can improve quality.
     
  • Databases that collect product and customer information can help marketing fine-tune sales programs.

Clos LaChance Winery shipped 60,000 cases of wine last year. It's a small number compared to industry giants, but the technology Bill Murphy has integrated into growing, fermenting, bottling, aging, shipping and selling the 2009 vintage is redefining the way vintners produce and distribute premium wine.

Murphy, the recently retired director of Internet marketing for Hewlett-Packard and CEO of Clos LaChance Winery, planted 85 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel grapes near the winery during 2001. He released his first bottle of estate Cabernet Sauvignon in February 2007.

With 20 grape varieties growing in his San Martin, Calif., vineyard, Murphy considered several microclimates before planting the vines. He even factored the arc of the sun during the growing season into his design.

Murphy concedes that he cannot influence the weather. But he can determine the solar radiation, humidity and wind speed from several vineyard habitats, trace the production history of each lot of grapes and track a wine club shipment across the U.S.--all with the click of a mouse.

"It's not enough to rely on this 5,000-year-old craft to produce today's highest quality wine," Murphy says. "We've added technology to the mix so that we can measure and manage as many growth, production and distribution variables as possible."

Clos LaChance technology
 
The all-encompassing computer system at Clos LaChance makes it possible for CEO Bill Murphy and Stephen Tebb, director of winemaking, to view weather and irrigation conditions in the vineyard, make changes where necessary, and send instructions to winemaking staff in the cellar.
 

Listening to the vines
According to Murphy, the winery crew frequently walks the vine rows kicking the vineyard dirt. "If you listen," he says, "the vines will talk to you." At the same time, the sensors he placed in the vineyard tell the staff precisely what the vines are saying.

From a desktop computer equipped with ESI software and located in the field house, vineyard manager Ben Scorsur keeps track of soil and leaf moisture at several sites throughout the vineyard. Remotely operated weather stations report air temperature, humidity, rainfall, solar radiation, wind speed and direction from several microhabitats found in the vineyard.

"Instead of guessing how much water and fertilizer to apply to each vineyard block," Scorsur says, "we can calculate the exact amount."

Before Murphy planted the vineyard, a work crew plowed it row-by-row to loosen the soil and install sensors and an irrigation system that deliver water and fertilizer to each vineyard block that contains the same type of rootstock, cultivar, soil, trellis and irrigation pattern. Controlling water and nutrients in this way encourages the vines to develop evenly, with the number of leaves, the length of each shoot and the amount of fruit hanging from each branch in proportion.

"The key to quality is balancing the vines," Murphy says. "The technology that we introduced in the vineyard allows us to balance them at a much faster rate than traditional methods."

Murphy electrified the vineyard so that the grapes from each vineyard block could ripen simultaneously. He wired the winery so that the winemakers could drive production toward a style of wine that reflects the sensibilities of the customers he wants to reach.

Following the harvest
Stephen Tebb, director of winemaking operations, can evaluate the upcoming harvest, regulate the temperature of the fermentation tanks and even influence the character of the wine from an office that overlooks the laboratory, fermentation hall and barrel room.

Tebb and enologist and assistant winemaker Erica O'Brien exchange information using a few keystrokes and Orion Wine Software's PC Blend. O'Brien transmits an enzyme analysis and malolactic acid concentration to Tebb, who determines how soon after the crush to start secondary fermentation. He adjusts the temperature of the must stored in a 6,000-gallon fermentation tank by selecting an icon and then typing a temperature value into a dialogue box that appears on his computer screen.

"For the malolactic fermentation," he says, "we want to gently warm the tank."

A computer equipped with Logix software cools and then warms the fermenting grapes. As the ambient temperature drops during late fall, it gently heats the tank to initiate the secondary fermentation.

"Technology does make a difference," he says. "We make consistently better wine, because it gives us more influence over the type of wine we are trying to produce.

"Say we want to make a fruity Chardonnay with no oak influence," he says. "The control we have over the temperature during fermentation allows us to retain the fruity esters and volatile compounds that would otherwise evaporate. If we want to create a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon," he adds, "we can maintain the temperature of the fermentation tank to extract the most flavor from the grapes."

 O'Brien can map trends to determine when the secondary fermentation is slowing down or the volatile acidity is climbing. She can share results instantly via computer with winemaking and production teams.

And like vineyard manager Ben Scorsur, Tebb can count on much greater accuracy when he calculates the variables that drive production.

"I make fewer mistakes because the computer will alert me if I'm blending two batches of wine that are a few gallons more than capacity," he says. "That way, I can concentrate on making wine instead of simply writing down information in record books."

In addition to gathering information for blending, fermenting and aging wine, he can trace the history of each bottle.

"Say someone from the TTB pulls a bottle out of our tasting room, marches into my office and says 'prove to me that this is 75% Grenache,'" Tebb says. "I have the data to prove it."

Overseeing production
Jason Robideaux, assistant winemaker and production manager, also can drive production from the console of his desktop computer. With a few keystrokes of his keyboard and PC Blend software, he can enter, find, update and share information about each step in the process.

Robideaux can fire production data across a computer network that serves the rest of the winery staff. But first, he tracks the grapes from the sorting table to the bottling truck.

Grapes from a specific vineyard block arrive at the winery, where the crew determines the volume and weight before transferring the information to a weigh tag. Stored electronically, the tag resembles a medical record with laboratory and production teams entering vital signs and work order summaries into a computer file as the grapes develop into wine.

Shortly after crush, the lab staff enters data from the primary analysis into the weigh tag file. The electronic record collects information during production and is available to the winery, vineyard, sales and marketing teams. Initially, they can examine the Brix and TA to estimate alcohol concentration. Closer to bottling, they can calculate the final yield for each variety or blend.

The software reports the percentage down to the last gallon.

"Storing the weigh tag electronically saves us a tremendous amount of time and money," Robideaux says. "We can replace an endless stack of weigh tags with a simple point and click that retrieves all the pertinent information."

When Tebb blends Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot, the software calculates and records the result and ensures that the blend meets legal requirements.

It also accounts for all chemicals shipped to the winery. With legal limits for cupric sulfate and sulfur dioxide, the program records how much of these compounds Tebb has added to the wine and what's left in inventory.

When O'Brien wants to add tartaric acid to the must, the program alerts the production team, issues a work order and accounts for the additional compound. The program also keeps track of barrels--letting the cellar crew know whether the team needs to rinse the barrels with water before adding nitrogen.

"It maintains a complete inventory including location--flavor profile and the amount of wine stored in each barrel," Robideaux says. "And it accounts for the volume of wine needed to top-off each barrel."

Before bottling, Robideaux specifies the number of cases for each variety or blend, and PC Blend tracks the required number of bottles, corks, capsules, boxes and labels. As bottling depletes the quantity of dry goods, the program alerts him when to re-order. And once the bottles are placed in boxes, the software moves the inventory from the production database to marketing and sales.

Because they've linked production to inventory, members of the sales and marketing team can analyze the cost of wine at every step in production to determine the sales margin and price for each varietal or blend. In addition to bottling costs, the software accounts for labor, vineyard and storage expenses.

"We can also track inventory to predict the future needs of sales and marketing," Robideaux says. "If Merlot sales are down a bit, then maybe we look at a larger percentage of Merlot in the Meritage blend and a smaller quantity of varietal Merlot this year."

The database gives him a chance to tackle big picture items like relaying information to the lab, managing the movement of barrels, facilitating the cellar crew or blending the wine.

"The guesswork is over," Robideaux says. "The winemaker can put down the calculator, pick up the wine glass and spend more time concentrating on the most important aspects of winemaking."

Ship it
Compliance software embodies all the virtues of a vineyard and winery wired for technology--accuracy, speed and control.

Melanie Gameng, direct sales and marketing manager, watches over the database tracking shipments to winery customers located in 30 states. With regulations and tax rates enforced separately by each state, a customer places an order and ShipCompliant software checks the address; the product including the appellation, alcohol content and label; the customer's quota for the month or year and the age of the recipient. The customer can order the wine via the Internet, by phone or while visiting the tasting room.

The software checks thousands of rules before approving a customer's request.

"I enter a name, address and order," Gameng says, "and the software (Orion Wine Software's Consumer Direct) returns an order number and billing information, which includes freight costs.

"Once ShipCompliant has verified the address and age (ChoicePoint/IDology)," she says, "it saves the transaction and notifies me how much and when the sales and use taxes are due. It also fills in other reports such as excise tax and special forms required by a specific state."

The software ensures that the label contains the information required by the TTB.

"ShipCompliant also alerts me when it's too warm to ship an order," Gameng says. "I can enter a ZIP code for a route that is, say, 85°F or lower. If it's too warm, the order does not leave the warehouse until the temperature is suitable for shipping."

ShipCompliant can also help manage wholesale accounts. It evaluates every invoice to ensure that the winery has registered the product properly, purchased or renewed licenses, posted prices consistently and not exceeded product limits. The software updates product registrations, the vintage and bottle size, for example, and checks for compliance.

Members of sales and marketing and the production team can review the wholesale report to gauge demand.

Minding the store
Dominic Tufo, senior director of hospitality, understands Clos LaChance customers. In addition to capturing a visitor's product preferences at the tasting room, point-of-sale software (Orion Wine Software's Consumer Direct) works with the front office, the event coordinator, online sales and the wine club to store customer information in a single database.

Aligning these five sales programs reduces errors when entering data, simplifies the search when retrieving information and records customers' preferences.

"We can use this information to send out an e-mail blast, sign up wine club members and create customer profiles for sales and marketing," Tufo says.

Ahead of the curve
By integrating accounting, compliance, inventory, marketing, production, sales, vineyard management and winemaking into a single solution, Bill Murphy wields a powerful tool for improving quality, efficiency and the winery's response to the changing tastes of customers.

With Orion Wine Software's Wine Information Management Systems (WIMS), PC Blend and Consumer Direct software, ShipCompliant's wholesale and direct consumer software, and software that regulates winemaking processes, staff members can exchange information via an advanced computer network.

"Versatility sets Clos LaChance apart from other wineries," says Amr Wagdi, CIO of Advanced IT, a service that has integrated Orion, ShipCompliant and process control software into a single solution. "The production manager can oversee the bottling of the 2009 vintage, while a sales manager located across the country can forecast regional demand."

"Sharing all this information across departments has improved the quality of wine we produce and made us much more efficient," Murphy says. "Historical data and precision irrigation and fertilization help the vineyard team produce higher quality grapes; electronic tools permit the winemaker and enologist to regulate fermentation and perfect each blend, production software helps us manage inventory more effectively and compliance software lets us navigate a complex marketplace."

But technology advances and markets change. This year, Murphy--an Internet pioneer--broadened the reach of the winery by adding the social network sites Facebook and Twitter to his electronic toolbox.

"The Millenials have proven to be wine lovers in general," Murphy says. "We're out to make them aficionados."

A regular contributor to Wines & Vines, Thomas Ulrich wrote "A Perfect Storm" for the January 2009 issue. Based in Silicon Valley, Ulrich has written news and feature stories for Time magazine, the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post. He teaches journalism at San Jose State University. Contact him through edit@winesandvines.com.

 
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