Tech for Vineyard Development

December 2010
by Peter Mitham
Ridge Vineyards
In 2008 Ridge Vineyards contracted Soil and Topography Information LLC to see what soil amendments were needed in a Sonoma County vineyard.

Success in real estate depends on location, and that’s as true for vineyard properties as for any other kind. But the variation possible within even any one viticultural area means location plays a far more complex role than many people imagine—and that’s setting aside any debate about the nature of terroir. A host of practical considerations will face the grower who aims to select the best possible site for a vineyard and reduce long-term management issues.


  • Growers now use GPS and GIS to guide vineyard management practices, not just for development.
  • Slope, drainage, aspect, geology, chemistry, zoning and land use can all be subject to GIS analysis.
  • GIS can replace many soil pits, but it doesn't replace an experienced viticulturist's eye.

Rapid development, especially in new growing areas, means centuries of experience and hard-won wisdom aren’t available to guide new plantings. Many plantings are educated guesses—educated, all right, but guesses nonetheless.

Since soils aren’t laid out in neat grids, and often they represent millions of years of geological history, growers such as Jim Holmes of Ancora Estates on Red Mountain in Washington state said unraveling the mystery bound up in each plot of ground is important. “You really need something that can tell you where you are at any time for any variable you’re looking at that’s of interest,” he said.

No longer a novelty
Holmes’ tools of choice are geographic positioning and information systems (GPS and GIS). The equipment was a novelty in the 1990s, but it has become key for many growers who rely on the information to construct their vineyards and guide management practices.

The impetus for Holmes when he bought his first system in 1998 was the opportunity to vet some of the gut feelings he had regarding row orientation against what he knew had to be done in Ancora’s vineyards. The northern latitude of Red Mountain meant a sun that was lower in the sky, striking his vines at angles different than what is typical in California vineyards. Holmes therefore rotated his vines 12° to reduce the risk of sunburn. “I really needed GPS to run those angles,” he said.

GPS also helped in understanding how the vines would respond in a particular location. Holmes had decades-old soil maps, but he rebuilt them after taking more than 500 samples of Ancora’s soils. The exercise allowed him to tailor irrigation to the specific soils of the vineyard as well as identify nutritional issues as key factors underlying variations in vigor.

“We know that’s where we should be focused, and that’s where we’re going now,” he said. Holmes’ current system required an investment of $6,000 two years ago, and it includes a GPS system from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Trimble Navigation Ltd. and Redlands, Calif.-based ESRI Inc.’s ArcMap 9.3 GIS mapping system—or about the same as production costs for a single acre. The vineyard supplies high-end Washington state producers such as Quilceda Creek, Januik Cellars and Barnard Griffin.

“A $6,000 machine spread over 200 acres over 10 years becomes nothing. What you get out of it is your ability to manage the things that would otherwise be outside your range,” Holmes said. “We can pay more attention to the things that count, and that’s where we get the improvement in our output.”

An intern typically handles data analysis, giving Holmes grassroots level information about the vineyard’s characteristics.


GIS may help define terroir

Advanced mapping systems create opportunities to provide a scientific basis to notions of terroir, correlating site data with analysis of the composition of grapes.

A principal component analysis using the Soil Information System from Soil and Topography Information LLC of Lodi, Calif., is one way of doing this, observes Wines & Vines columnist Cliff Ohmart.

But the data gathered in newer regions such as Washington state are also fundamental to an emerging discussion there regarding distinctions between vineyards. Veterans of the state's 40-year-old wine industry often opine that the state is only just understanding some of the regional differences--still hotly contested--that make, say, a thimbleful of Red Mountain integral to every great Washington red or fruit from Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA a hot commodity at growers' auctions.

Yakima Water Gap
Dr. Kevin Pogue is gathering data from 12 sites on Red Mountain.
Indeed, Dr. Kevin Pogue of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., believes many growers continue to plant on the reputation of sites rather than the kind of information GIS systems can provide.

He's looking to change that, overlaying data gathered at sites in the Walla Walla AVA on maps to get a better sense of what the region has to offer. Pogue is gathering data from 12 sites on Red Mountain to give a better picture of temperature variation by elevation, for example. The sensors have been gathering temperature info rmation hourly for more than a year.

"I'm excited to look at that data and then say, 'OK, how does the temperature vary with elevation on Red Mountain?'" Pogue said. "And when I get that data, it'll be the first data like that that anybody has, because most people are just using the nearest public access weather station, which is not even on Red Mountain. It's in Benton City, and they're extrapolating that to the whole viticultural area, which is ridiculous."

Tease out relationships
ESRI’s mapping systems are used by many industries, but Dr. Rick Rupp, information systems coordinator at Washington State University’s Pullman campus, told growers attending the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers annual convention this past February that slope, drainage, aspect as well as vineyard geology, chemistry, zoning and land use can all be subject to GIS analysis.

“You can tease out some amazing new relationships that you never knew existed before,” he said, noting that a 10-square-meter grid should be adequate for most small- to medium-sized wineries (many federal agencies work with grids of 3 square meters).

Lodi, Calif.-based Soil and Topography Information LLC (STI) offers the Soil Information System (SIS), which can help growers dig into data associated with vineyard development and management.

Dr. Robert Wample, retired chair of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at California State University, Fresno, calls it “a new and disruptive technology for agriculture.” He presented information to growers in Washington state earlier this year that highlighted the system’s ability to accurately forecast vineyard productivity and yields based on soil composition.

Originally developed in the late 1990s, the system uses a minimally invasive sampling technique (no pits) to generate maps of soil texture, available water in the rooting zone, nutrient-holding capacity, distribution of specific soil nutrients and maps detailing the differential rate of specific fertilizer applications throughout a vineyard.

The mapping work costs about $120 per acre, but Wample said the analysis saves growers about $71 to $75 per acre by providing accurate information that eliminates trial and error and leads to better management decisions.

Get a grip on amendments
Caleb Mosley, viticulturist with Ridge Vineyards Inc. in Cupertino, Calif., said SIS has delivered many eye-opening moments. Ridge contracted with STI in 2008 to get a better grip on where soil amendments were needed in its 500 acres of vineyard in Sonoma County, to understand where it should make changes to its irrigation regime and where different rootstocks might be appropriate.

“It’s kind of woken us up: The thing that this particular system can give you is information that you really didn’t have before—and that you don’t necessarily have the ability to get, for the most part, with just a whole bunch of soil pits,” Mosley said. “It’s a great way to go in there and more quickly start looking and diagnose that problem.”

A 30-acre site Ridge is developing in the Santa Cruz Mountains was part of the original analysis in 2008, but it recently remapped the property for this year’s expansion. Brush was removed, and a mix of old and new ground was covered in the latest analysis. Three levels of liming were deemed appropriate for the site during the original analysis, and David Gates, vice president of operations for Ridge, said the effects were apparent in the new survey.

“It’s because of this experience I think I’ll do it on my other ranches in another few years,” he said.

“I thought it would be a one-off...(but) within five or 10 years, I would like to have them come back and see if some of the changes that I’ve been making, which hopefully would become long-term changes, are actually taking hold.”

Still, machines are no replacement for trained viticulturists. Digital systems enhance analysis of what’s in the ground, said Kevin Corliss, director of vineyard operations for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Paterson, Wash. He points to the analysis done in 2006, prior to expansion of the Spring Valley Vineyard north of Walla Walla the following spring.

Ste. Michelle hand-drafted a rough outline of the vineyard to reflect viticulturists’ understanding of air drainage and other factors, then refined the map using a computer to chart blocks that best utilized the ground based on topography. We “planted it based on what we expected for different places of slope,” Corliss explained.

Ripening date was a key consideration. Ste. Michelle needed some spread to the fruit. “And the exciting thing was that, lo and behold, when we got all done and took a look at the vineyard, it actually works pretty well,” Corliss said. “It serves the purpose both from the standpoint of spreading out the different flavors and quality of fruit as well as the timing of harvest.”

“It would have been difficult to take a real complex piece of property like that and map it out into farmable units without losing a lot of ground and without putting dissimilar pieces of the property together. So that was very helpful. Being able to draw electronic lines versus what you think,” he said.

John Deere’s GreenStar RTK system allowed Ste. Michelle to establish Spring Valley’s vine rows using GPS technology, marking the vine row immediately before staking and trellis installation.

But it all started with sizing up the site of the vineyard, gauging the topography to determine how air was likely to move across the terrain. “The trained eye can pick out where the frost is going to be,” Corliss said. “There’s still no substitute that I’ve found for an experienced vineyard person.”

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