At Sky Acres Winery in Far Hills, New Jersey, fermentation engineer Vijay Singh and his wife, winemaker Meera Singh, craft wine in an unconventional way. The semi-retired couple has patented the GOfermentor, a winemaking system that occupies a small footprint, but has delivered outsized results. The technology replaces labor-intensive fermentation practices with biodegradable plastic bags. Instead of sterilizing stainless steel tanks between each batch, producers simply replace the bags saving time and other resources.
Sky Acres’ most recent releases of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and the Mr. Big red blend all earned silver and bronze medals at the 2019 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Its 2017 Black River Red, made with New Jersey-grown Maréchal Foch, took home Best in Class. All were made via the GOfermentor.
A 2000-square foot former horse barn holds Sky Acres’ entire winemaking operation. And there’s not a single fermentation tank or barrel to be found.
As a biotech scientist, Vijay created the WAVE Bioreactor, which swapped out traditional stainless steel tanks for plastic bags. The invention became the industry standard. Now, the Singhs hope the GOfermentor achieves similar success in the wine industry.
The couple sought to make wine without the complications involved with traditional production. In 2014, Vijay invented the GOfermentor, inspired by the disposable technology of his previous creation.
The system has two basic components, a GObase and single-use GOliner. The base is a large, rigid, reusable open-topped container that holds the biodegradable liner. The liner has two connected chambers, one that holds the grape must and one that inflates every three or four hours.
When the liner inflates, it squashes the chamber that holds the fermenting grapes. The result, says Mr. Singh is similar to pigeage, or foot stomping.
“When the bag deflates, the cap is dispersed,” says Vijay, “The beauty of it is that it’s automated. You get a consistent punch.”
Directed and produced by Jett Singh
After fermentation, the wine can be pressed conventionally, or the inflation chamber can act as a built-in bladder press. With an attached must pump, pressing can be done in less than an hour. The pomace in the GOliner becomes fertilizer.
Not only does it simplify the labor-intensive problem of fermentation, it also eliminated the need for someone to punch down the cap of grape skins and solids. The Singhs can leave the fermenter for days while it does the work. The system’s computerized touchscreen has an easy interface and allows for customized parameters that can be controlled remotely.
The method creates wines with more color extraction than those made by traditional means. According to a 2016 study done at Italy’s University of Turin, data showed faster and better color extraction from the GOfermentor, likely due to the unique punching mechanism.
The system also eliminates much of winemaking’s mess. The bags make cleanup simple. The GOliner is disposable, while the GObase is wiped down and stored until next season. With no tanks or barrels to be washed, the system uses about 80% less water than traditional winemaking and creates no wastewater that must be treated. The closed system also keeps fruit flies away.
The technology is used at wineries in Napa, Chicago, Texas, Spain and Italy. Continental Divide Winery in Breckenridge, Colorado, was an early adopter. They currently use six GoFermentors on multiple varieties including some of their higher end red wines. “We especially like their unique ability to control oxygen exposure and that they allow us to dramatically reduce our water and chemical use for tank and barrel cleaning,” says Jeffrey Maltzman, proprietor of Continental Divide.
The cost to set up the system is much less than the startup costs for a traditional winery. The base is $500, a three-pack of liners is $300 and the touchscreen is $1,900.
Singh has also patented a NoairWine Aging system, which pumps wine straight from the GOliner into a flexible plastic bag lined with thin metal foil to block oxygen. The bag is placed inside a traditional barrel or other container. The liner collapses as wine is removed to store wine indefinitely without oxidation.
What’s next for Sky Acres, which the couple refers to as a “research winery”? A home-sized GOfermentor Jr, is scheduled to be released in May of this year.