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Inquiring Winemaker

 

Do We Still Need Winemakers?

February 2011
 
by Tim Patterson
 
 
For a glimpse of the future of wine, look no further than YouTube, where a short video reveals the automated operation of Siam Winery. You know it's the future because it's on YouTube, not in some wine magazine, and because it's from Thailand, yet another country getting into the wine business. We don't meet "the winemaker" in the video, but the clip does feature the Thai production engineer who speaks fluent German (a useful skill since the winery was designed by Siemens, not exactly a household name in German winemaking).

If you're not sold, think about this: They knock out 20 million bottles per month.

Play Movie


Closer to home, winemaker Sam Kaplan uses a considerable degree of high-tech automation at Arkenstone Vineyards in the Napa Valley. "I can do pump overs from my couch at home, watching TV with a nice cold beer in my hand," Kaplan says. "Wait," he added, "don't print that."

And here's the scoop on the ultra-modern Yalumba winery, courtesy of the Australian division of another venerable non-winemaking titan, Rockwell International:

"The primary user interface for the system is a fully redundant supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) server supported by five on-site clients, each running RSView Supervisory Edition from Rockwell Software. Winemakers and operators use the SCADA to specify process streams, crushing speeds and fermentation schedules--plus monitor the operational status of the entire plant. RSView Supervisory Edition provides unified site-wide monitoring and control via the RSView SCADA terminals and numerous plant-floor PanelView Plus human-machine interfaces (HMIs)."

Is a "human-machine interface" anything like a "great wine made in the vineyard?" Is this what all of us in the wine industry signed up for?

 

    WHAT DOES IT COST?
     

     
    From my short survey, costs per tank for automation might be anywhere from $300 to $1,500, depending on the choice of bells and whistles. Jim Conant of Logix estimates that a total winery automation system starts at $30,000 and up, though he's done half-million-dollar installations.

    Suppliers I talked to agreed that automation is probably off the table for very small operations, unless they are also very high end: Arkenstone, for example, makes only a few thousand cases of its own wines--a $120-per-bottle Cabernet blend and a $45 Sauvignon Blanc--but the winery also does custom crush. Very large wineries often prefer to do their own process engineering. The target range for automation lies somewhere between 25,000 and 150,000 cases.

    Most wineries implement automated systems one piece at a time--a few tanks as a trial, more the following year and eventually a move to environmental controls as well. Milz says that 40% of VinInfo's business is with repeat customers. As with any capital investment, the potential payoff comes over time: buy once, use indefinitely. Kaplan and Januik didn't have hard figures at hand, but both are convinced the systems will surely pay for themselves in decreased labor and energy costs and consistent wine quality.
    --T.P.

Sensors, software and logic controllers
Automated winery systems generally center around temperature control and start with tanks. Sensors monitor and report temperature--and, depending on the setup, control temperature so that it stays within a specified target range during fermentation and storage. A little more wiring, and tank pump overs can be timed and scheduled. To handle the thorny issue of uneven temperature within large fermentation tanks, automation suppliers have various strategies including multiple sensors and timing temperature readouts in conjunction with tank mixing.

Suppliers also are testing and developing ways to measure the progress of fermentation and fiddling with the temperature to speed things up or slow things down. The VinWizard system from New Zealand has probes for measuring Brix/density directly; the Kreyer VinInfo systems from Germany measure the rate of CO2 production as a proxy; Logix in Kirkland, Wash., lets winemakers use good old hydrometers, giving them an excuse to sniff and taste the emerging wine while they're at it. Even the simple measurement of temperature is enough to sniff out a stuck fermentation, triggering your choice of alerts: alarm bells, e-mails and quite possibly Twitter feeds.

Beyond tanks, automated winery systems can also take charge of facility-wide environmental variables, checking for and altering barrel room temperature, humidity, CO2 concentrations and regulating ventilation to take advantage of cool night air.

All the systems come with central brains, computer software that tracks and records status information from the various sensors and hookups, displays it in a variety of intuitive formats and allows the winemaker/operator to control temperature and processes from a central console. Winemaker Mike Januik, who uses a Logix system at Woodinville, Wash.-based Januik/Novelty Hill, says automation makes his winemaking possible from "Europe or Peru." Sam Kaplan, meanwhile, prefers winemaking from his couch (where he connects to his VinWizard system, which runs in nine languages).

The available systems are focused so far on functions inside the cellar, but crush pad automation is on the horizon. One piece already coming into place is automated and semi-automated sorting, which includes vibrating sorting tables that take care of most of the MOG when grapes are received and optical sorting technology (like that from Key Technology in Walla Walla), which grades grape berries by coloration and decides their fate accordingly.

"The general public," says Markus Milz of Kreyer and VinInfo, "thinks winegrapes are harvested by hand, treaded by 21-year-old maidens with their feet and then the juice somehow runs into wooden barrels." Even though Kreyer--and Milz's own 500-year-old Milz-Laurentiushof estate winery--is headquartered in Germany's picturesque Mosel region, the approach to winemaking is a nything but quaint.

Values added
Fans of automation (both winemakers and suppliers) cite a long list of advantages to embracing this non-traditional technology.

Reliable temperature monitoring and control, the heart of automated systems, are essential to good winemaking. Mike Januik likes being able to set his red fermentation temperatures to 88ºF and know that if the tank somehow gets out of range, he'll get a cell phone call, wherever he is. Besides on-the-spot monitoring, the automated systems store temperature data and other variables in a permanent database, so that winemakers can consult past vintages in considerable detail when tackling the next one.

Temperature control can yield considerable energy savings. Spending energy on heating or cooling can be limited to the times it's really needed; a timely infusion of night air is far cheaper than electrical refrigeration; wineries in some states can use automation to take advantage of off-peak rate differentials offered by power utilities. Refrigeration is a huge part of winery energy costs and managing it efficiently pays real dividends. Bob Richards, managing director of Wine Technology America (the company that makes VinWizard), estimates it accounts for half of the energy bills in Australian wineries

Automation can eliminate a lot of wasted time, too. "When we bottle," Januik says, "we need to raise the temperature of the water to sterilize the bottling line. Rather than coming in two hours early and standing around, we can program the system to heat up in the morning." And automation can certainly help eliminate mistakes--pump overs someone never got around to, temperature spikes that go unnoticed for a day or two, pumps left running or never turned on, blending the Chardonnay lot into the Merlot tank.

Mike Januik gives his system credit for eliminating mold. "Being able to ventilate barrel rooms on schedule is very important. In our barrel room, there is absolutely no mold because of ventilation control."

Besides savings in energy and labor costs, the biggest payoffs are in peace of mind and wine quality. By eliminating mistakes, oversights and accidents (and lessening the logistical bottlenecks at crush time), "wine quality goes through the roof," Kaplan says.

Sources of skepticism
So why isn't everybody plugging into the control module?

"The wine industry," Milz says, "is one of the most underdeveloped drinkable liquids in terms of automation and electronic devices." Part of the reason is the structure of the industry: "It's hard to say this is fact-based," says Bret Larreau of Key Technology, which does the vast majority of its business with crops other than grapes, "but generally the wine industry is a late adopter. It's a fragmented industry with tens of thousands of wineries, massive scale differences and a majority close to garage size."

"Wineries mostly have lots of unrelated parts," says Richards says, "each designed for peak processing, and the components often have their own isolated intelligence. We end up with state-of-the-art components not operating in a state-of-the-art manner."

Not surprisingly, automation has caught on more quickly within national wine industries trying to invent or reinvent themselves such as New Zealand and Australia. Export-oriented wineries and wine industries are also more eager adopters, since maintaining their market shares absolutely requires reliability, consistency and traceability. Markus Milz also says that while European wineries are very conscious of energy needs and limitations, "in the U.S. the idea of saving energy hasn't really arrived yet."

Some hesitation, of course, comes from the extra expense, particularly in recessionary times. But more surely comes from the view that winemakers have to be "hands on," need to be close to and intimately involved with their wines, not turning the delicate, sensual art of winemaking over to some machine. Yet proponents of the technology say it doesn't change the winemaking one bit; it simply reduces the drudgery, the late nights, the mistakes, the wasted time and the under-performing wines.

"We don't interfere with winemaking," says Jim Conant. "They can do their job. We provide them with data, let them change things automatically over time--and arrest the Brix fall at 3 o'clock in the morning. This allows them to focus on winemaking management. It automates routine tasks, oblivious to winemaking techniques."

Unlike designer yeasts or wonder enzymes or the latest wrinkle in barrel toasting, automation doesn't promise to change your wine, just your winemaking. "We're not telling the winemaker what to do," says Milz, "we're just helping with a device so the winemaker knows more about what he's doing."

For winemaker Sam Kaplan, "My winemaking style is all about the vineyard. I embrace the technology to be more hands off, to let fruit do the work."

"It's just a tool," says Jim Conant, "and all tools require a competent tool user."

Tim Patterson is the author of the newly released
Home Winemaking for Dummies. He writes about wine and makes his own in Berkeley, Calif. Years of experience as a journalist, combined with a contrarian streak, make him interested in getting to the bottom of wine stories, casting a critical eye on conventional wisdom in the process.

 
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