If ever there were a reminder that the wine industry isn’t all ease and luxury, it’s the unseasonable frost that hit Chile early this October, slamming the wine industry -- one of the country’s major exporters, along with copper and fruits.
The estimated $1 billion damage to the crops snowballed until the government declared the situation a state of emergency.
While wine harvesters can’t control or even always adequately predict weather patterns, developers across the industry are trying to give winemakers more control over the nuance of their operation, which could help vineyards withstand the disruptive but inevitable weather risks. Keeping temperature conditions stable is crucial through the winemaking process, from the weather determining the harvest to insulation on tanks during fermentation. (Not to mention all the way to the time of drinking, when wine enthusiasts know how chilled or breathable a bottle needs to be before consumption.)
A Sonoma-based company has honed in on that fermentation segment of the winemaking process to create a system of communicating wine tanks to keep fermenting tanks at their precise and proper temperatures
There’s a lot at stake in ensuring the barrels hit the correct temperature for the wine’s health. Generally, whites ferment at a cooler temperature than reds, but if the tank over-cools the white, the wine might not develop yeast (the key element involved in fermentation). And a too-hot tank results in a burned, overcooked red.The fermentation stage is also when wines are most prone to going bad: common errors include “stuck fermentation,” when the yeast simply stops and spoils the brew, and other faults like early oxidization or maceration (the bleeding of purple grape skin into the juice, giving red wine its coloration, but ruining white wine).Experienced winemakers, like cooks or chemists, often have an intuitive sense for temperature -- but there’s a persistent problem of scale in even a non-industrial, boutique-size winemaking operation. Tracking so many kinds of wines in differing stages can cost a winemaker dearly.
With so many tiny details to manage during fermentation, temperature is one component that can and should run smoother.At the same time, no winemaker wants to cede total control of their art to a maze of machinery. So developers created a network of tank monitors, each of which communicates with a central hub that manages the temperature, but which can also be manually adjusted via computer or iPad -- a necessary tool in the event of a crisis like Chile’s. (Should Chilean winemakers salvage any of their crop this season, they’ll need to be certain none of it gets lost to fermentation, and that tank temperature can compensate for any weather damage.)
"It’s with no nostalgia that these winemakers talk about the old ways of making wine. What’s good about the Luddite times of winemaking just sees a massive improvement when it meets this new tech."
The tank monitoring system uses multiple types of sensors, which, together, create a cohesive picture of the wine throughout fermentation. Humidity trackers and sugar-content testers track the actual wine inside the tanks, while temperature controls placed on the barrels allow winemakers to adjust the relative heat or coolness remotely -- a superpower of sorts, since even a few degrees in the wrong direction can do major damage to a wine. For the separate temperature control machines that winemakers use, like industrial-size chillers, the Echelon-equipped communicative chips allow a new level of uniformity -- a cell phone alarm can even alert winemakers if major changes disrupt necessary cooling.
Winemakers use the automated system within a certain set of boundaries, for instance, noting that if a tank temperature rises over 85 degrees, it must chilled, but heated slightly if it dips below 60. Programming this ahead of time means minor fluctuations don’t send frantic emergency signals to the winemaker.Other winemakers can run with this idea even further, linking up their communicating tanks to green-orchestrated technology, essentially running a zero-impact operation. Taking advantage of limited energy waste during fermentation, one Napa winery used microturbine technology on its roof to heat its own water to be used in heating and cooling.
It’s with no nostalgia that these winemakers talk about the old ways of making wine. The process has always been a massive one, and what’s good about the Luddite times of winemaking (mostly the palate and sharp observation of a good vineyard owner, experts say) just sees a massive improvement when it meets these new tech. The reason? What might be a fancy new toy for an amateur becomes a multi-million dollar cost saver, time-manager, and streamliner when applied to an operation on the scale of winemaking.
And the technology reiterates the spirit of California vineyards. It recalls a story American wine buffs know by heart. In 1976, during a famed competition called the “Judgement of Paris,” California wines made history. A British sommelier organized a blind taste-test of Californian and French wines by some of the most well-regarded wine tasters (and therefore tastemakers) in the world. California took home top honors in every category, shocking the (mostly French) tasters.
The French took years to build their reputation for good wine, and any French winemaker will tell you the secret lies in the terroir, the richness of soil that comes with age. California wines, the youthful, scruffy underdog to their older cousins, have a history of challenging the narrative of older-better. It seems fitting, in the end, that California vineyards have stepped into a winemaking Tomorrow land.