The ancient craft of wine making conjures romantic notions of hand-picked vines, and bare feet crushing grapes. However, wine production today is a thoroughly high-tech affair. Degree programs in viticulture and oenology, from Cornell University to UC Davis, reflect advances in the industry. Professors and courses there now focus on topics like “environmental control, and modified atmospheres,” “the genetic engineering of industrial microorganisms,” or “analytical instrumentation,” to name a few.
What wine makers are going after with applied technology and science is a more profitable piece of an already sizable market. Consumers spent $38 billion on U.S.-made wines alone in 2015 according to the annual Wine Industry Metrics report by Wines & Vines Analytics. Using tech and science to gain every possible advantage can help producers keep their costs and prices down, their environmental footprint small, and their wines as high-quality as possible. More and better data, if analyzed properly, can also help wineries cope with extreme weather, from droughts to floods.
Farmers of every kind have used government research and data from agencies like the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency in planning and managing their crops. President Donald Trump has required that agencies (including the USDA and EPA) stop releasing their findings to the public until they go through administrative reviews and approvals. Although most farms are already paying tech companies and consultants for some of the data that they use to make business decisions, the new administration's "gag rules" could drive even more demand, and require farmers to spend more time and money on technology.
One of the best-known ways to gather agricultural data these days is seen in the skies. Vineyards and other farms have long used camera-strapped planes, helicopters or drones, and data gathered by satellites, to capture what’s going on in their fields below. But there’s an equally exciting new class of sensors, apps, and other hardware used in the fields, too. TechCrunch took a tour of some of the major vineyards operated by Treasury Wine Estates in Napa Valley to get a first hand look at what’s state of the art.
Treasury Wine Estates Chief of Innovation, Will Drayton.
For the unfamiliar, Treasury Wine Estates is the parent company behind some mainstream and critically acclaimed wines including: Beringer, Sterling Vineyards and Stags' Leap. The wines are produced by separate teams and at distinct vineyards, each with their own processes and approaches.
In some of its vineyards, Treasury Wine Estates uses mobile apps to connect managers with workers in the field; tractors outfitted with high tech systems that allow them to cut away debris, harvest and sort grapes efficiently; ground-based sensors that can gauge the health of their soil or plants, track the weather, and help manage irrigation; and truck-mounted lasers that take precise measurements of vines and leaves.
Treasury Wine Estates Director of Innovation Will Drayton first showed us weather and plant sensors his company is using in select vineyards, which are made by Arable. The startup's hardware, called the Pulsepod, may look familiar. It was created in partnership with Fred Bould, who was also behind the Nest thermostat, smoke and carbon monoxide detector, as well as Fitbit, GoPro and Roku products.
One thing Drayton said that field workers and he appreciate about the Pulsepod is that it’s easy to clean up, including when birds drop waste and debris into it. You don’t think about this much when you’re working a desk job, but earlier model rain gauges out in the field could be negatively effected by this natural debris in terms of their performance. They were hard to clean out thanks to a design that was anything but portable, and included lots of wires pointing up towards the sky.
Arable's Pulsepod helps vineyards track conditions effecting their crops on the ground.
By contrast the Arable PulsePod is solar-powered, lightweight, sensor laden top to bottom, and shaped like a small Frisbee. Using everything from a radiometer to an acoustic gauge it can measure details like precise rainfall or the color of grapes on the vine. (We previously wrote about the company and its angel investors.) Besides a sleek industrial design, the PulsePod is connected to Arable's cloud-based software, which uses deep learning to help farmers make accurate predictions about crops based on all the data they gather on the ground.
Drayton next introduced TechCrunch to an agtech consultant with Fruitition Sciences, Brandon Burk, who was on-site scanning vines. The company uses–what else in the name of fun on a farm with tech? Truck-mounted lasers! Its “physiocap rig" works like this, Burk said: “It has two lasers on it, one sending and one receiving... Every time something disrupts the flow [of light] that the lasers are sending, it’s taking a measurement. ”
Fruition Science’s physiocap does not count clusters of fruit, but focuses strictly on vine growth and balance, known in the trade as the ratio of “fruit to shoot.” The number of vines, leaves and width of the vines can predict how much fruit a farmer will get and how healthy the plants will be long-term. Correlating vine data with information about drought, storms, and inputs– or the different fertilizers, pesticides and seeds that may be used throughout a season– can help wine makers home in on what works in their field to achieve a certain taste and mouthfeel, every harvest. It can also help them make adjustments when weather drastically changes.
Treasury Wine Estates vineyards.
California suffered a statewide drought from 2012 to 2016, but the new year has brought storms that pummeled and even flooded parts of Northern California, along with hopes that the drought will be declared, officially, over. According to the US Drought Monitor, over the past 3 months California has shifted from a state to with about 88% of its total area coping with drought conditions to one with 59% in these conditions. Such a dramatic shift could impact the flavor of a given wine, if a farmer isn't changing tack appropriately.
While we visited after the mayhem of harvesting season, TechCrunch also took a spin around a farm lot at Treasury Wine Estates where heavy agricultural equipment was parked, including a special harvester made by Pellenc, a French company whose name would mean "lever" in English. The harvester has a range of accessories attached to it. “This vehicle is basically the Swiss army knife of tractors,” Drayton said.
With its many attachments, the Pellenc harvesters allow farmers to spray, mow, prune then automatically and cleanly sort the best grapes into a container. One attachment is like a giant metal shelf nearly perforated with berry-shaped holes. The shelf is positioned under the vines where it shakes, and detaches just the ripe and ready to harvest grapes. The grapes are mechanically sifted without damage into a giant container below.
A Pellenc tractor at Treasury Wine Estates in Napa Valley, Calif.
Up by the driver’s seat, the company had outfitted its Pellenc harvesters with an iPad, which displays geo-referenced maps that route drivers to the correct part of the field where they need to pick fruit, irrigate or apply fertilizers. Instead of turning to startups and partners for this one, Treasury Wine Estates developed their own mapping and routing app, Drayton said. A Vineyard Manager for Treasury Wine Estates, Shawn Ramsay, observed: “Younger people are much better at driving these machines because they grew up on video games. Especially with this iPad display, it feels like you’re driving around with a joystick, or a game controller, not a steering wheel.”
Younger people are much better at driving these machines because they grew up on video games. Shawn Ramsay
Finally, Drayton took TechCrunch out to launch a drone to run a multi-spectral, aerial survey of the vineyards. The multi-spectral readings, he said, reveal differences in the field for each vineyard unfolding in real-time, identifying irrigation leaks, or taking a quick reading of what sections of the field may be ripening first. The company uses this technology to identify early signs of diseased vines, and get them off the "block," before they infect any others. The potential of early detection is to make more and better wines without needing as much labor, water, pesticides or fertilizers to do so.
The drone used by Treasury Wine Estates was a research grade-model from drone market leaders DJI equipped with a high-definition camera from Parrot SA and operated using software from agriculture specialists Skycision. According to Skycision CEO Brendan Carroll, the company’s software-as-a-service helps farmers identify crop stress early in their growing season so they can head it off at the pass.
A DJI drone, customized and operated by Skycision, is used to study the health of vineyards.
“Our app integrates imagery from all kinds of aerial systems, planes, satellites and drones, to help farmers find pests, diseases and weeds much better than they can just walking the fields,” Carroll said. The app also lets farmers "click to fly," Drayton noted, meaning they don’t have to set drop points and tell a drone where to go in real time. They just define an area on a map where they want to capture imagery and show up with the drone.
Integrating different data sources to show an easy-to-read map to farmers proves harder than something like lining up layers in PhotoShop. Skycision’s software calibrates visual data to take into account the intensity of light on a given day, and the contours of the land below, among other things. Without this crucial step, images of a vineyard compared over time could lead farmers to wrong conclusions. “It would look like your crops died overnight when really, you had a canopy reflecting differently one day because of the clouds, versus the bright sunlight the day before” Carroll said.
Pittsburgh, Penn.-based Skycision works with growers of berries and grapes, which are crops that are very expensive to raise but also have a high-yield value per acre, he said. That’s because losing even a tiny portion of a field to pests, diseases or weeds causes a bad hit to the farm’s margins. And high value crops like grapes tend to see an aggressive spread when certain diseases show up, causing farmers to have to rip out huge amounts of vines to contain them. More precise data helps them rip out only what they must, or better yet, prevent the disease from ever spreading.
Treasury Wine Estates' staff launch a drone over the vineyard.
While we didn’t have time to see every technology in action, Drayton said one of his favorite machines to watch at work for Treasury Wine Estates is an optical berry sorter, which employs cameras and computer vision software to literally see, and quickly evaluate the quality of, all the grapes coming down a conveyor belt.
The machine, made by Bucher Vaslin in Santa Rosa, Calif., sorts the good grapes from the bad by directing tiny puffs of air that shoot them into one container or the other. A puff to the right, and a blueberry-like grape falls into the bin that will soon be crushed for pinot noir. A puff to the left, and a berry so dry it could be called a raisin goes to a bin that’s bound for compost. “It really is like a futuristic take on that I Love Lucy episode with the bonbons,” Drayton laughed.
Machines may never catch up to the human palate when it comes to discerning what tastes best. But at least we know that the ancient art of winemaking pairs well with the future.