Retooling the Wine Industry

Wine Executive Program sees wine's technological future

by Thomas Ulrich
Retooling the Wine Industry
James Wolpert
Sacramento, Calif. -- Vintners, growers, bankers, sales managers and wholesalers shared their aspirations for the industry with researchers from the Graduate School of Management and the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis this week.

Dr. James Wolpert, an extension viticulture specialist who has led discussions about the future of the industry at the university's Wine Executive Program since 2000, observed: "The answers remain the same. It's the questions that have changed."

According to Wolpert and colleague Dr. Linda Bisson, the industry's quest for greater market share and higher quality will drive vintners to blend precision viticulture with a comprehensive understanding of grape and wine physiology.

Why precision viticulture?

Precision viticulture, a tool for combining information technology with production experience, maps variability at the vineyard and in the winery to increase efficiency and reduce waste. It rewards vineyard managers and winemakers who comprehend differences in vigor, quality and yield in the fields, and practice farming methods aligned with the individual requirements of their wineries.

Equipment that captures geographical information in the vineyard has shaped Wolpert's vision of the next generation of winemaking.

Tools such as aerial cameras, ground-level monitors and geographical information systems will map the topography, soil composition, and vigor of the vineyard. Mechanical harvesters equipped with global positioning systems (GPSs) and monitors for measuring Brix will help the winemaker determine the quality of the grapes from each section of a vineyard block, and the vineyard manager selectively harvest the fruit.

Every market advantage is driven by technology, Wolpert said near the end of the discussion. Instead of blending grapes from three regions of a vineyard with different irrigation requirements, soil types and plant vigor, for example, precision viticulture will allow vintners to farm and harvest them separately. The data that precision viticulture generates will help industry improve quality, increase efficiency and reduce waste.

Retooling the Wine Industry
Linda Bisson
What customers want

Linda Bisson, a professor of enology at UC Davis, encouraged vintners to tailor their wine to their customers' tastes, during her lecture entitled "The Winery of the Future."

"Corporate goals differ," she explained. "Branding, terroir and reputation motivate your customers. They choose a wine because they are loyal to a brand, prefer a region or admire a winemaker."

Recent research suggests that they choose a label for more reasons than corporate marketers suspect.

While price, package, label, brand, variety and style influence a customer's decision, Bisson--a renowned yeast geneticist, is discovering how 200 genes with 12 variations each define our palates. Bisson's vision for the future of the industry encompasses consumer behavior, flavor enrichment and genomic information. "You can tailor your product to reach your customer by identifying consumer preferences, the effect that a choice has on a customer, and its genetic composition," she said.

Bisson and her team operate a gas chromatograph to identify and understand the biochemistry of flavor compounds. For flavors that don't appear as peaks on the chromatogram, scientists rely on a nose piece attached to the gas chromatograph that evacuates odors as the machine separates and records the sample.

"Once we've identified the flavor compounds, we can manipulate the taste," she said. "We derive flavors from the yeast, not the grapes."

Her team is also exploring how to control hydrogen sulfide and other undesirable odors. They search for the source of the odor, then look for ways to reshape the environment to prevent a microorganism from producing it.

"Knowledge drives the future of winemaking," Bisson concluded. "We need to minimize the environmental impact of the industry, and search for new ways to meet consumer expectations."

"No one size fits all," Wolpert added. "Winemakers and vineyard managers should tailor viticultural and winery practices to deliver outcomes that meet their specific needs."
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