It gets harder to buy a bad bottle of wine as new tech tools help farmers fine tune vineyards and produce more high-quality grapes than ever before.
Humans didn’t invent wine.
“We discovered it,” said Rod Phillips, a Carleton University professor and author of Alcohol: A History.
“It’s likely early humans regularly ate fruit that fell on the ground and discovered, that in certain conditions, it was pleasantly fermented. Eventually someone figured out how to do it deliberately and control it.”
And winemaking was born.
By 5,000 BC, civilizations in Georgia and Iran developed technologies to make wine with vinifera grapes, the same ones used today, according to Phillips. That know-how spread and developed by ancient cultures.
The Egyptians were known for their viticultural techniques. The Greeks established a sophisticated wine export industry throughout the Mediterranean. Later, the Romans planted some of the first vineyards in France and pioneered the use of oak barrels to age wine.
The pursuit of growing better grapes and controlling fermentation continues today, leading to new technologies and techniques.
“I prefer using old world methods,” said winemaker Enrique Torres, “but you really can’t make consistently good wine today without a computer.”
Torres makes classic Spanish wines from Tempranillo, Garnacha and Albariño grapes for Diablo Paso, based in Paso Robles, California. Using his computer, he logs all sorts of information such as weights, volumes and sugar levels in winemaking management software.
“I’d be lost without it,” he admits.
He said every great wine requires the right thing to happen at the right time. “What if you could always be there at exactly the right time?” he asked.
That question is leading winemakers to the Internet of Things (IoT) — where traditionally unconnected objects become “smart” via the ability to connect to the internet.
Tech-Infusion Elevates Traditional Practices
The ancients knew that pruning away a certain amount of fruit and withholding water in order to concentrate flavors in grapes could improve the quality of wine. But as technology improved over centuries, the educated guessing game of how to do that narrowed.
Some might say it’s getting harder to buy a bad bottle of wine—or better yet, extraordinary wine is more affordable than ever.
Internet-connected sensors are bringing grape growers into a new era of precision viticulture. They’re helping vineyard operators measure and control the right amount of water to coax the right amount of sugars and flavor compounds to develop in the grape.
“We’ve got a number of sensors throughout a 30-acre block of Pinot Noir grapes,” said Paul Clifton, winemaker at Hahn Family Wines, located near Soledad, California.
“One of the biggest tools has been soil moisture sensors that give us better knowledge for irrigation,” he offered. “We’ve had it for six or seven years and we have apps on our phones to access the data.”
Clifton said it’s easy to forget how advanced this is because it’s become the norm for winemakers like him. He’s now looking forward to the next technology adoption phase at Hahn: predictive analytics.
“Using the cloud, we take the data and work with prediction models to move away from calendar-based spraying and irrigating, and towards precision viticulture, which means better fruit and better wine,” said Clifton.
Hahn has already received high marks for its Pinot Noir as one of its 2014 vintages garnered 94 points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate magazine. The highlands of the Santa Lucia Mountains, where the winery is located, is rising as a region known for top-flight Pinot.
“The beauty of Pinot is it really expresses where it’s grown,” said Andy Mitchell, who oversees viticulture for Hahn. “In general it likes cool conditions, but after that just about any factor can affect the flavor.”
Mitchell pulled out his cell phone to call up a map showing where Hahn’s vineyards are located across several miles of the highlands.
“Our vineyards are in different microclimates and the wine from each vineyard has its own character,” he said. “So, if you want to get the best out of the grapes, you can’t do the same thing in all the vineyards at the same time.”
He walked along a row of Pinot Noir vines, pointing out a network of IoT technologies: water flow meters for drip irrigation, soil moisture sensors, and a weather station, all feeding data to a wireless solar-powered device on a post amid the vines.
“The blue dot is us,” he said displaying the map on the phone. “I can call up real time data from this box or from a vineyard a few miles below us — right now down there it’s 57.6 degrees, the temperature in the canopy of the vines is 57.8 degrees and humidity is 93 percent.”
Feeding that data into a predictive analytics engine, Mitchell confided, “is a game changer.” Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, the technology points to a future where viticulturists can micromanage specific rows, not just the whole vineyard.
“It’s amazing,” he beamed, “and it’s just the beginning.”
Out of the Earth and Into the Office
While IoT impacts the critical grape growing phase in the vineyard, big data is coming to the front office, according to Mike Stallmann of Oztera, a Fremont, California-based company which provides software to wineries to connect disparate sources of data.
“You can’t make wine for very long if you’re losing money,” said Stallmann.
Wineries, especially those that grow their own grapes, have the particular challenge of doing it all: farming, manufacturing, marketing, distribution and hospitality. There’s a lot of pressure on those little grapes to do more than just get fermented.
“Imagine all the apps on your phone running different segments of your business,” said Stallmann. “If none of those apps talk to each other you have a huge problem.”
Stallman provided the example of wine blending. It’s not uncommon for a winery to figure out, after the fact, that costs were higher than anticipated.
“Grapes from different lots can have different costs and, once in the bottle, you can end up selling a wine that’s too expensive for the market,” he said.
The winemaking process itself—organizing and automating data of the grape crush, fermentation and aging—is wide open for tech innovation.
“I have a wish list,” Clifton said. “How about a sensor that goes in the bottom of the tank to know exactly how much wine we have? It would be a huge tool rather than relying on a tape measure and a dipstick.” IoT technology is already measuring beer kegs, so it’s likely Clifton’s wish will come true.
“But, we just got some new technology that saves about four hours of running tests of sugar, alcohol, malic acid and other things. It’s incredible.”
“My wish list is getting shorter fast.”