Perched high atop Pritchard Hill, Ovid Napa Valleys vineyard boasts a majestic view of Northern Californias wine country. From the front of the property, you can see all the way to the Mayacamas Mountains that divide Napa and Sonoma counties. This breathtaking tableau is lost for the moment on Thibaut Scholasch, whos crouched in the vineyard, gently parting clusters of blueberry-sized cabernet sauvignon grapes. This is a pipe, he says, holding a vine between his thumb and forefinger. Water flows right underneath the surface.
We all learned in grade school how a plant conveys water and nutrients to its extremities. But Scholasch, who holds a PhD in grape growing, understands this distribution process far more intimately. With this particular vine he knows precisely how much water is flowing in the pipe at any given moment. Thats because he can see inside.
Scholasch tugs on a section of Velcro and peels back a layer of insulation, revealing a sap-flow sensor. About 3 inches long, its a simple device consisting of a heating element, two thermometers, and a transmitter. There are two wires that measure the temperature, one before the heat is applied and one after, he says. The difference between the readings indicates the amount of water present. The system, while simple, is powerful enough to unravel thousands of years of farming practices.
Scholasch and fellow French expat Sbastien Payen are cofounders of a small Oakland-based consultancy called Fruition Sciences. The company deploys arrays of sensors like this one to monitor dozens of vineyards around the world, the majority of them here in Napa Valley. Powered by solar panels, the systems wirelessly transmit readings over the Internet to the cloud, where theyre analyzed to determine the plants level of hydration. The scores are correlated with various external data, including weather, date, berry sugar content, soil moisture, and vine arrangements. Using all this information, Fruition advises clients about optimal planting schemes and irrigation schedules and predicts the best harvest dates.
This type of real-time monitoring and analysis may be increasingly common in Fortune 500 supply chains and smart electricity grids, but in agriculture it still counts as radical. To this day, farmers rely primarily on observation and instinct for everything from planting and fertilizing schemes to watering schedules. According to a USDA survey, more than three-quarters of American farmers irrigate based on observable crop conditions, like the way a leaf shrivels in heat. Nearly 7 percent simply irrigate when their neighbors do. The result is massive overwatering. This holds for Napa Valley as well. For some of the wineries they work with, Scholasch and Payen have already reduced overall water consumption by more than 10 million gallons a season.
Napas grape whisperers will be reluctant to change their century-old methods just because two frenchmen show up with water sensors. Data From Vines
Of course, whenever hard data invades the realm of intuition, conflict is sure to follow. The establishment and the geeks have already scuffled in sports, advertising, medicine, policing, and real estate. And so it goes here in wine country. For the past 100 years, the farming decisionsplanting, pruning, irrigating, and harvestinghave been dictated by experience and often even a degree of mysticism. This is the land of grape whisperers. And many of Napas elite are not going to change the methods that have proven themselves for a century just because a couple of Frenchmen show up with water sensors.
But to a growing cadre of A-list winemakers, theres actionable intelligence in the data. Many of Fruitions clients are altering their irrigation techniques, turning laggard vineyards into top performers and using far less water than they ever imagined. Along the way theyre extracting lessons that could extend far beyond this rarified corner of agriculture. By gaining insight into the relationships between water, sunlight, yield, and taste, Fruition Sciences is showing the way for farmers of all stripes to increase productivity and quality in a world of shifting weather patterns and decreasing supplies of freshwater.
Fruitions Office overlooks a knockoff Jiffy Lube in a gritty section of Oaklands Temescal district. Scholasch is the wine expert. He moved to the US in 1999 after earning a masters degree in winemaking from Montpellier SupAgro, one of Frances top agronomy schools, landing a job as a research viticulturist for Napas legendary Robert Mondavi. His English was minimal at the time, and he learned the language mostly from Mexican field hands. Studying the relationship between irrigation and fruit composition, he quickly recognized how little anyone knew about what was happening in their vineyards. I was amazed to realize that so many winemaking or vineyard decisions were being made based on empiricism or unreliable deductions created from observations, he says.
Scholasch traveled the world working as a consulting winemaker for several years but found himself drawn far more to decoding the mysteries in the vineyards than to crafting an ideal cabernet. He felt that he was a scientist among artists. Hardly one to romanticize Napa Valley, he primarily drinks what he can buy at Trader Joes. In 2005 he returned to France to pursue a PhD in viticulture. Hed persuaded five iconic Napa wineriesDana Estates, Ovid, Napa Valley Reserve, Roy Estate, and Vineyard 29to foot the bill for his studies in exchange for using their vineyards as test beds. In 2006, a mutual friend introduced Scholasch to Payen, now Fruitions numbers guy. At the time, Payen, who has a PhD in mechanical engineering from UC Berkeley, was looking to commercialize custom sensors that measured fruit sugar content. The two realized they could combine their skills to measure waterand get a better picture of how grapevines are doing. In 2007 they launched their self-funded company, focusing on boutique wineries and using off-the-rack sensors to keep costs down.
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