A winery might seem like an odd place to find cloud computing and big data tech. But in more than 50 vineyards in California's Napa Valley, sensors are continually gathering data about the health of the vines and relaying it to the cloud for analysis, giving wine makers insight that can lead to higher quality wine.
Fruition Sciences, an Oakland, Calif.-based startup (sometimes called the "vine nerds"), is one of the first companies to bring this tech to the wine industry.
Its solar-powered sensors, which attach directly to the vines, measure how much water is moving through the plant — known as its transpiration rate — and send this data wirelessly to Fruition's cloud-based server.
From there, customers log into Fruition's web app and get a real-time view of how their vines are doing, including how much water the vine is losing every hour and how weather conditions are affecting it.
"We are constantly assessing information on what’s happening with the vine, and to help the plant to respond to the environment," Thibaut Scholasch, co-founder of Fruition Sciences, told us.
Fruition Sciences' sensors work by applying heat to a section of the vine stem and measuring the temperature before and after to determine how much water is moving through the plant.
"We can precisely measure the heat dissipation along the vine stem while the water is being displaced," Scholasch said. "The level of resolution we get with this data is fantastic."
Being able to see what's happening inside the vine replaces the guesswork that often goes into the decision of whether or not to irrigate. It's often hard to figure how if a vine needs water just from looking at it.
This is especially important in California, where most wineries irrigate their crops.
While water needs vary depending on the type of grape, irrigating too much can damage the quality of the wine. The key is to irrigate the vine just enough so the plant is slightly stressed and produces smaller grapes, which is why real-time insight is valuable here.
In addition to making better wine, Fruition's tech can help vineyards get a better yield out of their plants, which translates into better return on investment, Scholasch said.
In the wine industry, there's no shortage of widgets that are supposed to help make better wine. But Fruition's tech is different, because it's churning out hard data. Fruition's app also lets winemakers create detailed logs of the vineyard management tasks.
Daniel Baron, winemaker at Silver Oak Cellars in Oakville, Calif., who's been working with Fruition Sciences for two years, says Fruition's tech is helping him to significantly cut his water usage.
"My vineyard team is thinking now about when they irrigate and how they irrigate, which translates into us using less water," Baron said. "We can push the limits of how long we can go without water."
Because there are a large number of variables that influence the quality of each vintage, Baron says it's too early to say whether Fruition's tech always translates into better-tasting wine. But the tech has other clear benefits.
"It's hard to quantify, but we learned a lot about how to form our vineyard to be optimal," Austin Peterson, winemaker at Ovid Napa Valley, a St. Helena, Calif.-based winery told us. "As a consequence of that, we've seen improvement in our wines. Our last couple of vintages got our best scores yet."
"We’re getting better fruit character, and the tannin structure has changed in experimental blocks," Baron said. "We’ll need a few more years to understand the changes, but I’m convinced enough to continue to do it, even if the only benefit is the water savings."
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