March 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

A Conversation With Randy Heinzen

Paso Robles vineyard consultant discusses practical technology

by Laurie Daniel

Andy Heinzen set out to become a computer engineer when he enrolled at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. But the Gilroy native, whose family had farmed in California’s Salinas Valley for generations, realized that he would never leave his cubicle with that degree. So, he switched to political science, with an eye toward advocacy for the wine industry. When Cal Poly added a minor in enology and viticulture, he signed on to that program, too, graduating in 2000.
     Viticulture proved to be a good fit for Heinzen, who went to work as a vineyard scout for Scheid Vineyards in Monterey County before studying for a master’s degree at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. He then spent about 10 years in the Napa Valley, first as director of vineyard operations at Saintsbury winery, then as a vineyard manager for Beckstoffer Vineyards, with responsibility that included high-end Cabernet vineyards like To Kalon and Dr. Crane Vineyard.
     In 2013, Heinzen returned to San Luis Obispo County, joining Vineyard Professional Services in Paso Robles. He acquired the company in May 2017. The company manages 2,500 acres of vineyards, nearly all of it in the Paso Robles area, and consults on an additional 1,400 acres along the West Coast. VPS provides a range of consulting services, from vineyard planning to financial services to due diligence for vineyard buyers.

What sort of vineyard technology have you invested in lately, and is there anything else you’re particularly excited about?

Heinzen: I appreciate that you used the word “investing” in your question. Many of the technologies we have been purchasing and incorporating into our services have utility immediately, but they also represent a response to developers and engineers that there is demand and need for these types of products, and we are kind of voting with our dollars.
     Digital imagery has been around for a long time, but hyper-spectral cameras (we use a service from PIC) are a crucial step toward gleaning higher value-management decisions from the product. These cameras have something like 100 times more wavelength data points and can drill down to a vine-by-vine analysis. We are interested in more than images showing possible irrigation leaks; we now know that imagery can detect virus signatures and give us quantifiable impact and rate of spread over time. Future image products will allow us to refine crop estimates or even generate a potential yield map. Hand-held cameras already tell us heat and/or water stress, but tools are now available to map anthocyanin potential and possibly highlight individual clusters to selectively pick for maximum quality and uniformity. The utility of the imagery is good now, but we are so close to having images generated by plane or satellite that replace hours of a vit tech or scout on an ATV collecting data and inputting it into a device for pick decisions or vine health measurements.
     We have also tried to incorporate technology into our vineyard developments, with mixed success reducing labor demands but definite improvements in operational efficiencies. We haven’t been thrilled with automated marking machines or planting machines, but I know other industries use these extensively. I’m sure we will see these technologies eventually modified for vineyard applications and greater adoption in the future. We have been pleased with improved design and ground-preparation technologies and see the benefits in healthier and more uniform vine growth.
     We have been contracting an EM-38 sled through Helena’s AGRintelligence Services to best define the boundaries of our vineyard blocks and direct our soil sampling. The tool utilizes ground-penetrating radar technology known as LiDAR to map the soil profile at greater depths than the older electro-conductivity tools. It’s shaped like a bass cannon, or a really cool subwoofer that fit in my hatchback car in high school, and is run along the soil surface. Using this tool, our soil scientist can minimize the number of field sampling pits needed to identify natural vineyard block boundaries. After designing the blocks, we then employ California Agricultural Soilworks to rip our vine rows and incorporate the needed compost and fertilizers. They use self-driving tractors that rip the exact vine row at sub-inch accuracy and couple their patented hydraulic ripper to fold and mix the compost and fertilizer at depth at the exact spot where roots will be growing. These GPS-guided tractors give us precise rows for trellis and plants without excessive tractor work and ground disturbance.

Are there highly touted technologies that you think aren’t quite ready for prime time?

Heinzen: I’d say that almost all technology has some significant contribution it can make to farming, but some of the tools present solutions to problems that we don’t have or just won’t scale. I understand the value of drones in Midwest agriculture and perhaps winery marketing, but I don’t yet see applications at the vineyard level that reduce labor or replace older technology. I’m probably a bit jaded, given my kids have destroyed the four helicopters they received as gifts, each on maiden voyages, but we have contracted or trialed drone services for imagery at least three years and have yet to see the advantage over plane or satellite imagery. I’m excited to see some of the UAV helicopters used for spraying, but the payload, cost and need for on-site supervision and specialized handling seems outsized relative to value. The technologies I mentioned as investment-ready are all integrated, understood and applied by our current tractor operators or field personnel. We don’t need additional licensing or complicated training. I will say that my dream application for drones is for them to work autonomously patrolling and harassing birds away from ripe fruit. We spend far too many labor hours on bird-control activities and putting up bird nets.

As growers confront looming labor shortages, more mechanization seems inevitable. How have items like mechanical harvesters improved in recent years? Are vintners who produce higher end wines becoming more open to mechanical harvesting?

Heinzen: It’s exciting to see technology move from the crush pad to the field with the introduction of many brands of machine harvesters equipped with on-board destemming—not only because the sorting tool gives us a better quality product for our wineries, but it further challenges the hand-pick-only crowd to find a credible reason not to accept machine-harvested fruit. Overcoming this bias will pay huge dividends into the future, as we reduce the labor requirement at harvest by at least a factor of eight to 10. We have been the first vineyard management company to deliver machine-picked fruit to many of the ultra-premium brands on the west side of Paso Robles and enjoy the shocked response when they see what appear to be MacroBins filled with pure blueberries. Some wineries are now even paying a premium to machine harvest with a destemmer because of the quality enhancement, and it creates a value-add for our clients when trying to sell their fruit. While this has immediate payback, the investment in this technology and its ability to overcome the objections by the hand-pick-only crowd is necessary, given where labor is going. Setting aside the looming problem of mandated wage increases over the near term in California, our labor force is simply not growing or getting younger.

Water is a big issue in California and has been particularly divisive in Paso Robles. What are you doing to improve your water management?

Heinzen: Water as an area for investment in technology is not a new concept in vineyards. I have been fortunate to work for progressive companies since I started out of college and have been exposed to everything from manually vacuuming the air out of soils with tensiometers to hauling a radioactive element around the field embedded in a neutron probe. There are many, many good tools available today, but we prefer technologies that give us irrigation intelligence without the need for manual collection and data entry. We still heavily rely on our vineyard manager’s eyes and experience, but we like data that tells a continual story of the plant’s water needs and affirms or challenges what we visually observe.

     TULE Technology is one such device, and it relies on the relatively recent application of surface renewal technology to grapevines. A field device constantly monitors the actual evapotranspiration that is generated over a 5- to 10-acre block. It pairs this data with a sensor that quantifies applied irrigation. Like many other tools, it gives us a snapshot of the current water status of the vineyard, but where it really transforms our management activities is in its predictive power. Their software learns the response pattern of applied irrigation water and subsequent evapotranspiration loss and predicts the impact and timing of future irrigations. This builds efficiencies into our scheduling of irrigators, saves money and water by reducing our irrigation applications and ultimately enhances grape quality by improving the precision of irrigation. In my opinion, the best part about their technology is that you only rent it, so each year you receive the latest unit and software. You aren’t stuck with an outdated device.
     Another water-saving application that doesn’t often get considered when talking technology is the application of amendments and injection tools that improve water quality and penetration. I’m always surprised when people tell me they don’t treat or monitor their irrigation water, because Paso Robles has some notoriously poor water qualities with salts, bicarbonates and high pH. We use automated dosing machines by pH Technologies to mix sulfuric acid into our drip systems to bring the pH down to 6.0 or 6.5. Not only does this help keep our drip hose clean and drippers uniform, but it improves water and nutrient uptake by the plant roots. These technologies constantly monitor pH and adjust the dosage, and we can also precisely meter in fertilizer or water-buffering products that help improve soil infiltration, reducing water loss due to field evaporation or run-off.

Are your workers using power pruning shears? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Heinzen: We have trialed some pruning guns but have yet to buy the high volume needed to supply an entire crew. As competing technologies come onto the market, we have seen the prices come down and are very tempted.
     We chose instead to invest in a handful of tying guns over the past couple years as an initial foray into small-tool technology. The gun is loaded with a thin reel of wire that ties a grapevine cane to the wire, with the wire designed to last about one season. These tools have probably cut our labor needs for this activity in half and represented an easier adoption curve. The practice of tying canes is fairly monotonous and doesn’t require the field personnel to weigh a lot of decisions. We are able to speed up this activity with the gun because of less fatigue and faster application of a tie. We have found that the gun requires training and experience for its use, but the activity of tying can be accomplished by anyone.
     Pruning decisions require a great deal more skill and concentration, so while a gun would reduce fatigue, I don’t think we would see the same degree of labor savings in speed as we see with the tying technology.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for more than 21 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.

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