Some growers and vineyard managers are doubling down on high-tech viticultural solutions to save water, cut labor costs, maximize efficiency and increase sustainability.
Once used primarily by commodity-scale growers, machine harvesters and pruners are now an option for boutique-sized vintners as well. The machines first became popular because of their speed but have been increasingly sought after as they’ve become more sensitive and customizable. They’ve also become more and more necessary, given a labor pool that’s drying up due to immigration policies and competition from other crops like legally grown cannabis. French manufacturer Pellenc is the industry leader and now sells more than twice as many harvesters peryear as it did a decade ago.
“Labor-saving technology is increasingly important,” says Jeff Newton, founder of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates in Santa Barbara County. “Though it’s been around since the 1960s, machine-harvest technology has gotten better by leaps and bounds.”
There’s a growing number of scanning devices that track everything from nitrogen and sap flow to color accumulation and vine wood health. Software company Fruition Sciences offers them all, prompting winemaker Aaron Pott, who works on and consults for a variety of brands including Napa’s Seven Stones winery, to say, “I feel as if I can control one of the fundamental aspects of terroir with godlike precision.”
Grapes that Play it Cool
Researchers have developed cold-hardy grape varieties that are able to withstand temperatures as low as -30˚F. This allows growers to cultivate wine grapes in areas like the upper Midwest and the Northeast, where frigid weather was a significant barrier.
Attack of the Drones
The buzz starts way before the first sip these days, as drones zip around vineyards to tackle a variety of concerns. Aerial crop analysis, once done by expensive airplane flyovers, can survey 1,000 acres in a day and is the dominant service offering for companies like PrecisionHawk. Another company, Hawk Aerial, has drones that use multispectral cameras to assess vine vigor and ripeness variability, creating “vigor maps” from the findings. VineView’s equipment analyzes disease pressures from above, while Yamaha’s RMAX helicopter can spray fungicide in a more efficient manner. Even the original Rhone Ranger, John Alban, founder of Alban Vineyards in California’s Edna Valley, flies drones that project hawk squawks to scare away birds.
Uncork the tech
Chamisal Vineyards 2016 Morrito Pinot Noir (Edna Valley); $100, 96 points. This bottling from a hillside block is powerful, attention-grabbing and deliciously balanced. Aromas of candied plum and exotic black cherry meet with piles of red and purple flowers on the nose. The palate shows both impact and depth, offering acid-powered flavors of hearty red fruit and dark star-anise spice.
Remote sensors developed by companies like WaterBit and Tule Technologies track real-time water usage and allow growers to irrigate with exact precision. The technology is used at top spots like Napa’s To Kalon Vineyard and Edna Valley’s Chamisal Vineyards, as well as at large operations throughout California’s Central Valley. These devices are said to significantly reduce water usage.
Laser Light Show
Birds can decimate a vineyard during harvest season, which causes almost $50 million per year in losses across California alone, according to a 2013 study published by Elsevier. For decades, loud cannons and netting were used to address the problems, but now, about 200 vineyards across North America, Latin America and Australia have turned to laser systems developed by the Netherlands-based Bird Control Group. The Bodega Catena Zapata Farm in Argentina reports it has altogether eliminated bird-caused crop loss completely since it implemented the program to scare away hungry parrots in 2017. Similarly, finch attacks have been reduced by 99.8% at Griffin’s Lair Vineyard in Sonoma County.