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Wine Talk with Alice Swift

From All Touch to No Touch Vineyard Practices, the New Age of Harvesting

Last month, I read a very interesting article about the next evolution of wine grape harvesting. That being said, I’d like to provide some “beverage for thought” this month. Considering it isn’t surprising that technology is being incorporated in all sorts of arenas around the world, such as with laser-precise surgery in the medical field, drones delivering packages, computers beating humans on Jeopardy, etc., it is no wonder that the concept of integrating technology to streamline processes in the beverage world is coming along. What do the examples I’ve just mentioned have in common? Fortunately, and unfortunately, these innovations have the potential to reduce (not eliminate) human labor. 

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was thinking about what’s next in the world of winemaking and grape harvesting. At the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in January, there was a panel session focused on vineyard mechanization. The panel of speakers had representation from notable wineries such as Nick Dokoozlian from E&J Gallo Winery in California, to Mark Krstic from The Australian Wine Research Institute. They discussed topics such as reduced labor availability, increased regulations and increasing costs. The concept of touch, or “no touch” in this case, was to address the possibilities and realities of reducing the number of touchpoints that a person has in a vineyard, as well as consolidation of operations and increasing of efficiencies. 

Though I was unable to attend the symposium, an article I read recapping the symposium in the Wines & Vines magazine did lead me to do a little more research on the subject. The concept of mechanization itself in the world of wine has been around for many, many decades. The advances in mechanics have led to machinery that supports the mechanical picking of grapes, sorting, crushing, rotating of champagne bottles with gyropalettes (to remove the lees faster than doing it manually), and so much more. 

With the increasing difficulty in obtaining the manual labor to care for and farm the vineyards, wineries must look to re-evaluate their vineyard layouts and grapevine structures and determine whether there could be a more efficient or streamlined approach. Labor is becoming more and more scarce with the complications of immigration law. In addition, this hasn’t stopped the consumer demand for wine and grapes. As of 2011, the United States has remained the top country for world wine consumption, making up just over 13% of the world consumption as of the 2014 statistics. 

In other beverage sub-fields, such as soil monitoring or beverage production technology (e.g., wine, beer), innovations have already been implemented. Real-time monitoring systems allow one to keep track of criteria like soil moisture and temperatures at will, or receive alerts in case of unusual activity. Many vineyards, especially in California, have begun utilizing drones to collect data on things like canopy cover/density, water saturation and rodents (such as Hahn Estate Winery in the Santa Lucia Highlands, or Alto Vineyards in Illinois).

In Europe, there has even been implementations of “robots” that are equipped with several sensors that roam the vineyards to monitor 1) grapevines’ vegetative growth, 2) nutritional status and 3) grape composition in order to optimize the vineyard management and improve grape composition and wine quality. (www.vinerobot.eu/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/GIESCO-2015.pdf

With so many innovations in (both technological and otherwise) in such a wide range of food and beverage areas such as with beverage preservation systems (iPad menu/display technology, mixology, etc.), are you really surprised that the vineyard practices are choosing to research and evolve their practices as well? What do you think the next big breakthrough will be in the grape growing and harvesting world? With technologies like drones and robots, increasingly effective sensors, better computer systems, etc., the possibilities are endless. 

Because of my personal fascination with automation and drone technology, if you would like to learn a little more about drones and winemaking, check out this Buzzfeed article: www.buzzfeed.com/hamzashaban/the-quantified-vineyard?utm_term=.bdqkvQx6A#.xi4RWovNj 

Until next month, Cheers~!
Alice

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