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Big data

High tech vineyard reengineers the magic of winemaking

Joe Harpaz  Managing Director, Tax & Accounting Corporate Segment, Thomson Reuters

Joe Harpaz  Managing Director, Tax & Accounting Corporate Segment, Thomson Reuters

Could combining sensor technologies with Big Data open up key information about winemaking that has historically been left to fate?

For businesses around the globe, there isn’t a single day that the innovation challenge doesn’t rear its head. Disruptors, new buying preferences, and new demographic and geographic shifts are all constantly impacting the way business has to be done.

It’s visible in every industry, from consumer products like new Under Armor sneakers that are manufactured on 3D printers, to complex business solutions built to leverage machine learning capabilities. Layer this rapid-fire technological development with end user expectations for products that are easy to use, beautiful to look at, and able to provoke a positive emotional reaction (thank you Apple), and what becomes evident is that traditional business cultures, acumen, and skill sets are all being tested.

The man and the machine working and learning together, the blend of art, science, and design, and the willingness to risk old business models are stressing entire industries.

It’s a challenge for those of us in large, established businesses who must juggle the demand to invest and develop future breakthroughs against the realities of existing models and customer needs. It’s even harder in businesses that are steeped in artisanal processes – industries like watchmaking, homebuilding, and farming – for whom doing things the old fashioned way is synonymous with authenticity, a badge of honor for craftsmen and women who’ve managed to resist the tide of change.

I recently had the chance to meet with a fascinating company that’s making a bold attempt to bring that old world craftsmanship into the new age of big data and cognitive computing. They are called Palmaz Vineyards and they are arguably driving one of the world’s oldest business models with some of the world’s most advanced technologies. Their experience is inspiring for all of us who’ve ever had to reconcile the demand to innovate with the pressure to preserve the magic of the past.

Palmaz is located in the heart of Napa Valley, the ancestral home of the U.S. wine industry for the last 150 years, but their facility is decidedly un-Napa. Looking more like a NORAD bunker than a pastoral Tuscan villa, Palmaz’s 18-story wine cellar is literally carved into a mountain to leverage gravity to move production from grape to bottle while eliminating any hardships on the juice as it moves through the winemaking process. The result is a wine that Palmaz calls “gravity finished.”

The design was the brainchild of Dr. Julio Palmaz, an interventional radiologist from Buenos Aires who moved his family to California while he was conducting the research at UC Davis that would lead to the invention of the coronary stent. After licensing the stent to Johnson & Johnson in the early 1990s, Palmaz gathered up his scientific background, his love for wine, and his considerable financial means and bought a winery.

While he set about on a seven-year project to build his incredible cellar, his son Christian was getting a degree in business and learning the finer points of geoscience and computer science. Once he joined the team, the tech side of things got even more extreme.

Christian believed that combining sensor technologies with Big Data could open up key information about the winemaking process that had historically been left to fate. Eventually he developed an end-to-end production analytics solution that measures billions of points of data, from the planting of a grape vine to the delivery of a bottle to your home.

The process starts in the vineyard with an elaborate geographical information system that gathers images from an infrared, multi-spectral camera flown over the vines twice a week to see how much chlorophyll is in the leaves of each plant. This information is used to dial-in precise watering instructions for each vine. The surrounding soil is then tested with a neutron probe that scans the soil like an X-Ray to determine moisture content around each plant. The system, called VIGOR (vineyard infrared growth optical recognition), is focused on standardizing and improving vine growth, detecting problems such as viruses, insects, or broken water pipes before they can impede growth. It all creates millions of statistically-meaningful data points.

These data are then handed off to a second software system, FILICS, or fermentation intelligence logic control system, which tracks every detail of the fermentation process at the molecular level. Using a process called sono-densitometry, vibrations in the fermenting wine are measured 10 times per second to reveal detailed data points on changing sugar and alcohol levels. The system also uses advanced thermographics with the capability to compute 3.5 million points of temperature during the 35-day fermentation process.

With the touch of an app, Christian is able to display all of these meaningful statistics, anomalies, and other data points on the dome of a fermentation room that looks far different than any other in Napa Valley. Christian’s computers are displayed in full color graphs and charts to quickly enable his winemakers to see just how the grape juice is doing.
Even the final step, putting the juice in a barrel, is broken down to a statistical science to get the best quality and taste of wine. With thousands of possible barrel configurations, the process that is usually chalked up to guess work is now controlled by a mass spectrometry of data on trees, techniques, grain thickness, complex carbs in the barrels, and more.

Christian explained that some of the most interesting findings he and his winemakers take from all of this data are the anomalies.

“You’d expect that only the perfect grows would make the best wine. But it’s not always that intuitive. Sometimes it’s a trouble growth that makes the best wine when it’s combined with the right barrel.”

Needless to say, these innovations have the old guard of the wine industry watching Palmaz very closely, even if they are critical of the Palmaz family’s approach as being too new school for the highly traditional Valley. But at the root of it, Christian’s world-class winemakers still make all the decisions, they’re just now equipped with extra precision that no other winemaker can boast.

Christian explained that the philosophy behind his family’s approach to wine isn’t just tech for tech’s sake or reverse-engineering a perfect bottle; it’s really about getting a better understanding of how to capture the magic of winemaking.

“One of the challenges we have in winemaking is that it takes an incredible amount of time. You’re building on what you’ve done just yesterday for two to two-and-a-half years. When you get to the finish line and you’re presented with these raw ingredients, you struggle to know what single point is responsible for the things we’re proud of versus what we’re not so proud of.”

He added that even with all of the data he’s collecting, the final blend still comes down to the feel of the individual winemakers.

“The big data process lets you identify what went right and helps us find relationships between variables so we can intervene while we still can make a correction, but our winemakers still make the final blend blind. At that point, it’s not about the data. They make the blend and it is what it is. Then we do an amazing amount of analysis to find out what went into this parcel, the barrels used, etc. to make it the way it is.”

I asked Christian directly about his detractors and the fear many traditionalists have that winemaking is losing the battle of art versus science: “The mystery and the magic and the human element do not need to decrease because of the presence of technology. These things are going to happen with or without you and you’ll just spend your time wondering what happened. Right now I’m seeing more artistic elements and humans being more tuned into the winemaking process than I’ve ever seen before. This is where we need to go. People think people will come to our wineries forever because they are in Napa Valley. They won’t. Differentiation is everything, and if we fall asleep at the wheel –our industry has a tendency to do that – we could lose ground. We have to be careful and stay aware of what our customers want.”

A minimization of production errors, improved quality, and repeatable, positive results; that’s all any company can strive for when trying to solve the innovation challenge. Add the fact that Palmaz is now using about 20% less water per acre thanks to its VIGOR system and the technology that may have seemed like weird science to some is just a smarter, more precise way to produce a beautiful bottle of wine. As organizations around the globe continue to wrestle to find new ways to improve their businesses, they may just want to turn to this beautiful corner of California for some answers.

This post originally appeared on Forbes


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