(This article first appeared in the 2017 Techonomy print and digital Magazine.)
In the thousands of years since people in China first began fermenting a mixture of grapes and rice, the art and especially the science of making wine has grown ever more sophisticated. Today vineyards are meticulously planned, with rows of vines carefully maintained and cultivated to generate the highest yield and refined taste characteristics. The result is highly-dependent on weather conditions, as well as variables like the alkalinity and nutrients in the soil, humidity, and the presence or absence of pests or other animals in the surrounding ecosystem. Variations in a crop can have huge economic impact, so vintners are turning to technology to monitor and grow grapes, seeking the best possible wine.
“Making wine is a series of vineyard and winery choices involving information that surrounds us, as well as intuition. Technology is providing us tools that improve the amount and quality of the information and make us more efficient,” says Paul Clifton, GM & Director of Winemaking at Hahn Family Wines (HFW).
While many factors remain out of the winemakers’ control, HFW is on the cutting edge of leveraging information about environmental conditions in their vineyards. In the past, such data was only collected periodically and for large plots of land that may not have been representative of the conditions in specific plots. Now Hahn has deployed sensors throughout the vineyard to take information like what comes out of real clouds and route it to computer “clouds” where the data is stored and analyzed. Verizon, extending its products and services in new areas, has partnered with HFW to explore this new application of the Internet of Things, in which connected intelligent devices enable systems to operate more efficiently.
Andy Mitchell, HFW’s director of viticulture (the cultivation of grapevines), says the new methods provide more precise data about how the vines use water, which enables him to know exactly when best to give them more. As these relatively new systems improve, he anticipates monitoring vineyard mildew and “rot pressure,” so vintners can know more exactly where and when to spray special vine treatments.
The goal, of course, is to improve output, but even more importantly taste. “It all leads to an end product, a bottle of wine,” says General Manager Clifton, who clearly loves his job. “Most winemakers strive for better than just tasting good. We want the wine to be so great that it sparks the same emotional high for the consumer that the winemaker experienced while making it.” In his opinion the process still requires a substantial element of art. “I don’t think technology can replace these senses…yet.”