Image: Bill Murphy
Eric Risberg  /  AP
Bill Murphy, CEO of Clos LaChance winery, walks through his vineyards past a weather station in San Martin, Calif., on Jan. 23. From software in the cellar to GPS-equipped tractors in the vineyard, a new crop of vintners are getting wired.
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updated 4/14/2004 6:04:28 PM ET 2004-04-14T22:04:28

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 terroir faster."

"It's the big guy upstairs that's still in charge of all this stuff," he added. "Our idea is to be able to learn about it as fast as we can, to measure as many things as we can, to control the things we can control and understand the things we can't control."

Blending vinery and binary
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.

Image: Bill Murphy
Eric Risberg  /  AP
Bill Murphy checks one of his temperature controled fermentation tanks at his winery in San Martin, Calif., on Jan. 23. The temperature is monitored by computer and controlled from the winemaker's office.
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.

"It's great," says Tebb. "The winemaking industry, in California particularly, is all about using the best tools applied to an old-world technique."

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 tech is aimed at producing a higher quality grape, which can pay off with premium prices for the finished product.

'Sophisticated farming'
"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.

"This gives you a better roadmap," says Cakebread. "Instead of kind of running blindly down a dark tunnel, here we have lights to show us the way."

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

"When we decide to pick, we're looking at grape maturity, we're tasting the fruit," says Cakebread. "We're eating like 10 pounds of grapes a day. The bottom line is if it doesn't taste good, no one's going to buy it."

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 ground-penetrating radar to map soil moisture.

Major innovations
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 that signal the driver just when cultivating equipment should be engaged to create a more uniform vineyard. (Weaker areas are cultivated to get rid of weeds, while grass is left where vines are strongest to reduce growth.)

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.

As the home of both the Napa and Silicon valleys, California is an enthusiastic proponent of precision viticulture. But some of these tools are being put to use in vineyards around the world.

Conformia Software Inc., which makes the grape-tracking software Murphy uses at Clos LaChance, is working with other wineries in the United States and Australia. "Just seeing the innovations of the last four years is incredible," says Conformia co-founder Neil Kataria.

Conformia's WinePRO software tracks grapes from the vineyard block where they were picked, noting characteristics such as variety and sugar levels, known as Brix, and follows the fruit all the way to the bottle.

Proponents of vine tech like their clicks-and-Brix approach, but say winemaking involves as much art as science. For example, Murphy can get real-time soil data on his computer, but still likes to kick the dirt himself to see if things are in balance.

"You just can't get away from experience and knowledge," says Daniel Bosch, director of Napa Valley vineyard operations for Robert Mondavi Winery. "All of this technology just helps you make the decision, it doesn't make the decision for you."

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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