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Wine Technology: Can Harvesting Data Make Better Wine?

Winemakers used to rely on instinct and tradition, but now, many are turning to technology, such as data analysis and tech innovation. What does this mean for wine's future?

My plan was to stalk the futurists of wine—the people investigating new and often unorthodox technologies, ones they believe will help make their wines great rather than merely good. That's how I ended up at Napa Valley's impressive Palmaz winery.

All new stainless steel and poured concrete, the place recalls the sort of backdrop you see in certain movies, against which white-jacketed scientists stride purposefully to and fro. It consists of four stacked underground caverns totaling 100,000 square feet, built into a hillside over the course of eight years. This subterranean structure is the height of an 18-story building. On the off chance government officials need a large, discreet venue to house a crashed UFO, they should call Palmaz.

The winery is the vision of Julio Palmaz, a physician who invented a coronary stent that he later sold to Johnson & Johnson for a vast sum; the revenue helped build his winery, which primarily produces Cabernet and Chardonnay. Says Palmaz, "The fact that I come from technology and also have a biology background gives me, perhaps, a slightly different view of winemaking than the average guy."

Winemakers used to rely on instinct and tradition, but now, many are turning to data analysis and tech innovation. What does this mean for wine's future?
© Paul Blow

As I stood at a railing, looking down on a huge rotating carousel of fermentation tanks, his perspective became clear. Nearby, Palmaz's daughter, Florencia, flicked a finger around a computer touch screen that displayed a grid of blue rectangles. Generated by proprietary Palmaz software, these rectangles showed the temperature inside each of the tanks arrayed below. Should any batch of fermenting grapes get too hot, the computer would direct the tank to cool down. The winery also developed its own iPhone and iPad apps, so workers can access the system remotely.

This is the new frontier of technology and wine. Of course, technology in general is a partner in virtually any winery you can name, involved in everything from monitoring temperature to controlling sanitation. It's invaluable in measuring grapes' Brix (ripeness), total acidity and pH levels. Even higher-tech pursuits—like infrared mapping of vineyards to determine heat patterns, for instance—aren't unusual these days.

But the wineries I visited are charting new technology terrain. With each, the story was the same: Grape-loving guy makes a bundle in tech and uses the cash to build a world-class winery. (According to the Wall Street Journal, construction of the Palmaz facility cost around $20 million; the family refuses to confirm that number.)

Wine Technology: Collecting the Data

Because these owners' day jobs keep them on the leading edge of technological development, they seem more comfortable than most of their peers in applying that sensibility to wine. They talk excitedly about analyzing data to learn more about how to make great wine, instead of relying on the seemingly mystical intuition of some veteran winemakers.

If, for instance, you stroll the rows at Napa Valley's Vineyard 29, you'll see vines that look like they're wearing tiny gauze bandages. But they're not wounded. Each bandage-like dressing hides a sensor that measures how much water the vine is taking in and then beams that information to a computer. The computer crunches all that data and, in theory, arrives at an ideal watering regimen for that specific part of the vineyard. (When growing grapes, a certain amount of water deprivation—"water stress," in winemaking parlance—makes for better wine.)

Winemakers used to rely on instinct and tradition, but now, many are turning to data analysis and tech innovation. What does this mean for wine's future?
© Paul Blow

Vineyard 29 was founded in 2000 by Chuck McMinn, a lanky man who carries himself with the easy confidence of a successful executive. McMinn got his start in 1978 at what was then a small computer-chip outfit called Intel; he went on to make his fortune running several other tech companies. He possesses the kind of analytic brain that senses parallels between making wine and making semiconductors. Both, McMinn argues, involve complicated chemical processes. Both are part science and part unknown.

"It's important to measure as much as you can," McMinn says, "so that you can attempt to reproduce the results when they turn out to be good." This reasoning is why he swears by the method he uses to give his vines exactly the right amount of water. As he puts it, "We are trying to have a better idea of the exact state of the vine and its growing conditions."

Then there's the Clos de la Tech winery, where owner T.J. Rodgers, who's also the CEO of Cypress Semiconductor Corporation, found himself dissatisfied with the grape presses on the market. Rodgers, an extremely determined bulldog of a man, decided to invent his own. Can you picture a French press for coffee that's big enough to squash a tankful of grapes? That's what Rodgers's new press looks like.

At harvest, Clos de la Tech's grapes are crushed in what is essentially a very low-tech fashion: People stomp on them. But during the crush, Rodgers uses a spectrophotometer—an instrument that uses light to measure the presence of certain compounds in liquid—to quantify the levels of key compounds in the fresh juice. Specifically, he's looking at tannins, which give wine texture and structure, and a particular antioxidant called quercetin. (Rodgers can rattle off research from a study that appeared in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, which claimed that quercetin shows up in disproportionately high amounts in high-scoring wines.) If the winemakers want more or less of any measured compound in the juice, the grape stompers crush a bit harder or a bit more gently. Clos de la Tech's wines are fine, subtle Pinot Noirs, but when tasting them, it's hard not to wonder how much of that quality actually derives from Rodgers's innovations.

In fact, it's hard even for tech-friendly winemakers to agree on just how much science can affect wine quality. In 2006, for instance, Kendall-Jackson winemaster Randy Ullom experimented with taking Vineyard 29's approach one step further: He placed sensors on individual grapes to measure water and ripeness levels. But in the end, he abandoned that approach. "Conceptually, it's a great idea, being able to measure what's going on inside the grape," Ullom says. But such methods "leave you with a phenomenal amount of data, and then what do you do with it?" he asks. "The variables [involved in making wine] are too numerous to come up with anything worthwhile at the end of the day."

"The science on premium grape growing is very poor," agrees Kevin Harvey, who is a partner at a major tech-focused Silicon Valley venture-capital firm. Harvey also owns California's Rhys Vineyards, located in the Santa Cruz mountains. There, he and winemaker Jeff Brinkman produce Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that justly receive ecstatic reviews. But science, says Harvey, "can't explain why one [vineyard] will produce fantastic wine and another won't."

"I am a data miner," Harvey says. "I love to be able to obsess over some data. But the more I look at this data [related to climate], the less it tells me."

Even Florencia Palmaz understands this skepticism. While looking at her computer screen as it displayed the temperatures of Palmaz's fermentation tanks, she mused that, hypothetically, one could look back at a vintage's temperature records and think, "Maybe a heat spike two-thirds of the way through fermentation gave us a nice mouthfeel." But, given all the factors that go into making a bottle of wine, "Who knows if it was that, or the farming, or the vintage?"

And, of course, there are still great winemakers who are indifferent to technological advances. And there are great wines (almost all great wines, some people might say) made without any advanced technology.

"I don't use any analyses of my grapes before I harvest," says Fred Scherrer of Sonoma County's Scherrer Winery, who started making wine in his teens. (His father grew grapes for Gallo.) In the past, Scherrer had tracked "the three things that I could measure" in grapes— Brix, pH and total acidity—and programmed a computer with that data so it could calculate the best time to harvest. But the results, he says, were "kind of irrelevant." Scherrer now decides when to harvest based on the look and the taste of his fruit (and on weather forecasts, at least to the degree that he has confidence in them), and that decision has produced very clear results: Scherrer's wines, in particular his Pinots, are lithe and lovely, clearly from California but utterly balanced—a perfect tonic for palates weary of ultra-ripe American wine.

"People have been making wine for thousands of years, and good wine for, probably, several centuries," says Carole Meredith. Along with her husband, Steve Lagier, Meredith produces admirable Syrahs for the Lagier Meredith label. She is also a noted scientist and an emerita professor at the University of California Davis's Department of Viticulture & Enology, known for her pioneering work in grape genetics. But when making wine, she says, "It is simply not necessary to use some of this high-tech knowledge."

Wine Technology: Does the Wine Taste Better?

Can you really taste the difference in high-tech wine? Well, Palmaz and Vineyard 29 both make solid Napa Cabernets. And Clos de la Tech's Pinot Noirs—produced so far in tiny quantities—are terrific, subtle wines. But for now, at least, I'm throwing my lot in with the lower-tech crowd. Not because the Scherrer and Rhys Pinots are so much more delicious, though. Rather, I keep returning to a thought that Carole Meredith had shared with me.

We were sitting in her homey and comfortable living room. Her cat was perched on her lap. Her husband was fixing equipment in the workshop downstairs. And she shook her head and uttered what must remain the credo of many winemakers, no matter how impressive the new wine technology appears to be: "It doesn't take rocket science to make good wine."

Jon Fine was nominated for a James Beard Award for his essay on natural wine in the June 2010 issue of F&W.

Published June 2011
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