High-Tech Sustainability: Wineries Turn to High-Tech Solutions for Sustainable Business

A version of this article was originally published in the September–October 2016 edition of Vineyard & Winery Management.

In the wine business, a brand’s reputation is often tied to its history—which you can only create if you’re still in business in the years and decades to come. That means doing all you can today to make your business sustainable for the long term.

That point is especially relevant for the 96 percent of US wineries that produce fewer than 50,000 cases per year while contending with distributor consolidation, labor shortages, evolving consumer preferences, and the increasing scarcity of water and other critical resources. There’s a clear theme to how many wineries and vineyards are making themselves more efficient: technology.

Managing Your Environmental Impact

US consumers are increasingly spending on sustainably produced products and the companies that make them. This movement continues to gain momentum, and its effect is compounded when you add the viral nature of product success today. But marketing aside, ecologically minded winery businesses also strive to conserve resources and be more cost-efficient on principle.

Water

Many wineries are performing water-use audits to analyze how many gallons they consume and where, then using the results to find new ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle the water. Some are installing catchment systems so rainwater can be recirculated, treated, and used; others are tapping treated wastewater from municipalities. Though not potable, this water can safely be used for vineyard and landscape irrigation and other uses, reducing potable water consumption.

Two other new technology solutions for water management and sanitization: the Tom Beard Company’s barrel-washing equipment and BlueMorph’s UVC technology.

The Tom Beard Company’s barrel-washing units are specially designed to recycle and reuse water in the last wash cycles. Using them, Jackson Family Wines in Sonoma County reduced its consumption of water for washing barrels by two-thirds and trimmed the amount of time required to wash barrels by about 40 percent.

Jackson Family and other wineries have also cut water use by more than 20 percent in the tank-cleaning process using BlueMorph’s technology, which sterilizes tank interiors with a specific wavelength of ultraviolet light instead of chemical sanitizers and water. Per Bluemorph, the savings can be over 80 percent if fully adopted and implemented. Trials have proven this technology is significantly more effective at sanitizing stainless steel tanks than traditional cleaning and sanitizing methods. In addition to eliminating microorganisms that spoil wine, the BlueMorph’s UV technology can also:

  • Reduce wineries’ heating bills by approximately 70 percent
  • Eliminate the need for chemicals in the sterilization process
  • Remove the scalding hazard posed by steam and hot water to employees
  • Reduce the time and labor required to wash a tank by about 75 percent (three minutes for a 3,000-gallon tank or 30 minutes for a 25,000-gallon tank)

Wineries are often surprised to learn that these technologies may not be cost-prohibitive. While the results depend on a winery’s size and winemaking processes, the savings in water, labor, time, chemicals, and energy can offset the cost of this equipment in as little as one year and generally less than three.

Pesticides

Another environmental issue is the use of pesticides. New technology is changing the story here too. One promising example is called thermal plant treatment (TPT) from AgroThermal Systems.

The initial idea was to blow hot air into the leaf canopy to control small insects and mildew with heat rather than with pesticides and fungicides. Trials in Oregon, New Zealand, and Napa, Sonoma, and Monterey Counties showed a significant decrease in the need for sprays but also multiple unexpected benefits among heat-treated blocks:

  • A 23 percent higher yield than control blocks
  • Repeatedly higher rankings in blind taste tests
  • Healthier leaf canopies and a more uniform fruit set (especially in cooler areas)
  • A 40 percent increase in the number of berries, a 40 percent increase in bunch weight, and one to two additional tons per acre in yield

How it works: Rather than applying a pesticide or fungicide spray every 10 to 14 days, a trailered TPT unit emits directed blasts of hot air (200 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit), raising the temperature under the leaf canopy by 12 to 25 degrees for about 15 seconds—enough to kill most small insects, insect eggs, and mildew. Growers can use TPT throughout the growing season to encourage more uniform bud break and control insects and disease. If the goal is a more uniform fruit set, growers can make two or three passes during bloom.

The resulting increase in tonnage can offset the cost of TPT equipment within one year. Though TPT requires less chemicals and water than pesticide, it does require burning propane to generate the heat, so there are some environmental trade-offs.

Reducing Costs Through Big Data

Pinpointing where resources are needed is an important part of efficient, sustainable business. In addition to neutron probes and other devices that measure the presence of available water in the soil, newer technologies are helping farmers gauge the health and resource requirements of their plants on a practically molecular level.

For water management, technology by Fruition Sciences enables growers to measure the water demands of individual vines, while technology developed by Oregon-based Tule Technologies provides evapotranspiration data on acres of plantings at once. Vineyards today can use GPS-enabled technology to generate maps containing layer upon layer of data aggregating soil type, mineral content, drainage patterns, sun angle, and other factors. This helps them manage resources as well as design new, more drought-tolerant vineyards that produce higher-quality grapes and better yields.

Mobile farm management and farm data record applications such as the cloud-based iCropTrak are making it easier for growers to document and monitor all aspects of their farming operations. Many vineyards are also establishing weather monitoring stations with expanded capabilities to record minute-to-minute data on temperature, humidity, wind direction, and speed. These stations provide data directly back to scouts and field managers through smartphones and other wireless technology to announce frost warnings, system failures, and required adjustments. The data reveals important year-to-year trends, the effects of variation in soil and climate on the timing of key phenological stages, such as bud break, bloom, and harvest.

Aerial technology (drones included) provide growers with a bird’s-eye view of their vineyards. These show uniformity of growth, detect areas under stress from disease, and help assess when a picking crew might have the next load of grapes ready to send to the winery. Colorful NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) maps, which show areas of high and low vegetation density, provide visual cues on how to improve uniformity of growth within a vineyard and how to harvest vineyard areas for optimal grape quality.

Some of these technologies even collect multiple types of data in a single pass through a field, which cuts costs, reduces wear on equipment, and lessens soil compaction.

Savings Through Automation

Automating work can help mitigate the effects of labor shortages. Used in vineyards and wineries, optical sorting equipment at harvest can remove material other than grapes (MOG) and reject unripe, sunburned, and overripe grapes based on color sensitivity criteria you can calibrate.

Typically, this technology (which starts around $75,000) can sort five to 10 tons an hour compared with a team of 10–12 workers, who can sort about a ton per hour. Winemakers report that the quality of the sorted fruit is often more uniform—and because this technology allows wineries to get more work done in a day, they can react more quickly to sudden changes in the weather and get the fruit safely “into the barn.” As a second benefit, employees can go home at a more reasonable time, so they’re more rested, less prone to injuries and mistakes, and better at making decisions. The ultimate result: a better-quality wine.

Marketing and sales functions are another focal point for automation. Now that direct-to-customer sales are a serious option in 43 states, wineries are upgrading their IT systems and other technologies. As they transition from a paper-based to a digital world, wineries are capturing orders, interacting with customers, and monitoring real-time inventory levels with the data streaming from mobile technologies. This brings greater efficiencies by reducing the time and cost of materials required to place and process orders and eliminating many of the manual steps winery employees used to do by hand. Better still, electronic orders may reduce the customer wait time between order and delivery, freeing up employees to perform more fulfilling, customer-facing work.

Last, new business intelligence software, such as Adaptive Insights, is shedding light on wineries’ year-to-year trends and allowing them to quickly reforecast projections. This can be invaluable when wineries are faced with a sudden change in the economy, a strike, or an unexpected weather event affecting the crop. By uploading current, budgeted, and historic data into the platform, the visual representations of the data can help winegrowers and managers make faster, better, more informed decisions.

Stay Ahead of the Curve

The technology wineries are using today can seem like science fiction to an outsider. But more and more, our climate—both business and environmental—is making it such that the wineries using this futuristic technology today are indeed the wineries that will thrive long into the future.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute an endorsement of Moss Adams LLP by the companies referenced herein, or an endorsement of such companies by Moss Adams LLP.  Companies and products are described based on publicly available information and other user information.