Thursday, October 14, 2010

Can technology help make better wines?

I recently received an email announcing the launch of UC Davis' new high-tech winery. It is a $15 million teaching-and-research facility and is expected to be the first winery to earn a LEED Platinum certification.

The project is impressive. The winery's eco-friendly features include onsite solar power generation and a system for capturing, storing, and recycling rainwater. The ultimate goal is to operate the facility independent of the main campus water line and be self-sustainable in both water and energy. Moreover, an innovative system of plastic tubes running up to the ceiling from the fermenters is designed to capture the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation. There are also plans to sequester that CO2 in order to work in a carbon zero environment.

The winery has also a new high-tech fermentation system that was donated by T.J. Rodgers, chief executive officer of Cypress Semiconductor and a winemaker himself. 152 stainless-steel fermentation tanks automatically control temperature during fermentation. In each tank, a brix sensor measures sugar levels and transmits the data across a wireless network. With this high-tech system, UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology plans to conduct data-intensive studies, hoping to understand how different variables such as grape-growing practices, vineyard location and choice of yeast strains impact the character and quality of wines.

“No other viticulture and enology research organization has a facility with these capabilities,” explains David Block, vice chair of the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. “And when it is fully implemented, it will contain one of the largest wireless networks in any fermentation facility in the world.”

To me, it is not clear how all this data analysis will really help winemakers. “A lot of information is great,” acknowledges PlumpJack Winery General Manager John Conover, “but the great thing about wine is that there is no recipe.”

By contrast, I remember my recent visits to Oregon wineries and the discussions I had with the local winemakers. Their main focus is to grow the best fruit in the vineyard. Viticulture science helps them select the best soils, microclimates clones, crop size, and grow more healthy grapevines. However in the cellar, most of them believe in minimal intervention and to just let the grape shine.

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