Wednesday, April 14, 2004

High-tech wineries making a statement

By Michelle Locke
The Associated Press

SAN MARTIN, Calif. - Once, wine meant horse-drawn plows and barefoot workers stomping in a tub. These days, winemakers are more likely to depend on the juice running through their personal computers as they turn grapes into premium vintages.

From software in the cellar to GPS-equipped tractors in the vineyard, a new crop of vintners are getting wired, and shortening their learning curves.

"I don't have hundreds and hundreds of years," says Bill Murphy, who has installed several high tech tools of the wine trade at his Clos LaChance winery. "The technology allows you to learn and understand about the territory faster."

For Murphy, a retired Hewlett-Packard executive, blending vinery and binary systems was a natural step when he built Clos LaChance next to a lavish resort and golf course in San Martin, about 20 miles south of San Jose. So he installed probes that transmit data on humidity, rainfall and wind speed into a computer system, showing how vines are faring and how they may be affected by weather conditions.

In the cellar, software tracks the fruit from vineyard to bottle, streamlining record-keeping and making it easier to calculate and identify blends.

Computers also allow winemaker Stephen Tebb to program fermentation cycles by controlling the temperature in each tank.

Putting some byte in their grapes seems to be working out - Clos LaChance has picked up a number of medals and was named one of 10 U.S. "Wineries to Watch" in the October edition of Food and Wine magazine.

Much of the new vineyard technology is aimed at producing a higher quality grape, which can pay off with premium prices for the finished product.

"It's pretty sophisticated farming," says Bruce Cakebread, chief operating officer of his family's Cakebread Cellars in the Napa Valley.

His tools include digital cameras that measure subtle differences in visible and infrared light, a technology called multispectral imaging. Airborne photographers take images of the vineyards at different times of the year and the images are compared to assess the health of the vines and decide when to harvest.

Still, there's no technical replacement for the taste bud.

What science can do is help with things like deciding when and where to irrigate. To answer that question, the Robert Mondavi Winery has teamed up with the University of California, Berkeley, to use experimental radar to map soil moisture.

Using a machine about the size of a vacuum cleaner, researchers sent electromagnetic pulses into the ground and successfully determined different moisture levels. The next step will be finding funds to study how much influence the technique has on grape quality, says Susan Hubbard, a UC-Berkeley research engineer.

Tractors carry another bit of vineyard wizardry - computers equipped with global positioning satellite technology.

Mondavi even teamed with NASA on a project using images from satellites as well as from single-engine aircraft to monitor vineyards. Mondavi uses aerial photography along with geographic information system mapping to get a precise snapshot of vineyard development, right down to the density of leaf area.

Poll: Tax refunds come and go fast
Professor looks inside 'The Toyota Way'
Shoppers splurged in March
Smooth Sailing
Cognis names new head of U.S. operations here
Churchill Downs bids $45M for La. track
High-tech wineries making a statement
Tristate business summary
Business digest