High Tech Vines

High Tech Vines

With smart devices controlling just about everything we use in our daily lives–from thermostats at home to the music we play on the road–it’s no surprise that technology and smart devices will play a role in the next bottle of wine you drink too. 

Winemakers are using a variety of technologies in their vineyards ranging from databases that track how grapes are growing year-after-year, probes that measure when to irrigate based on soil moisture, artificial intelligence for pesticide use and even smart tractors.

Carlo Mondavi’s venture into clean farming began by talking with farmers, with a goal of steering them away from using herbicides, in a movement he calls the Monarch Challenge

“Through these conversations, I learned so much about other farms’ struggles and came to the conclusion that unless we innovated, this movement was going to fail due to the economic divide and the carbon footprint separating clean farming from conventional farming,” said Carlo Mondavi, co-founder and chief agricultural officer at Monarch Tractor

In 2019, with the help of engineers and innovators, Mondavi co-founded Monarch Tractor. The company has developed a driver-optional smart tractor that is capable of providing farmers with real-time operation reports (i.e. soil moisture levels and the number of grape clusters on the farm) including 360 degree live video feeds. 

“At the core, Monarch is a revolutionary technology company that is leading a movement to make clean farming economically superior to conventional. We are doing this with a completely redesigned, rethought, robust electric, driver optional, smart tractor,” said Mondavi. “By being all electric, Monarch bridges the carbon footprint divide that separates clean farming from conventional. By being autonomous we bridge the economic divide while also protecting the operator from the most dangerous place on the farm and elevating their role into fleet management,” he added. 

Meanwhile, at Cornell University, researchers in the AgriTech program are finding ways to use technology to help the agriculture industry, including vineyards. One of their latest inventions: a robot that can target where to spray pesticides on grapes infected with a powdery mildew. 

“With the robot, we can run one acre for two hours to generate the map where the parts are being affected,” said Yu Jiang, Assistant Professor of Systems Engineering and Data Analytics for Specialty Cops at Cornell AgriTech. “Okay, where are the spots? Do you really need to start intensely spraying there? Where are the spots you probably need to think about some other preventative measures? Where are the spots you probably don’t need to worry about at all?,” he added. 

Jiang says we’re in a digital agriculture revolution where we are trying to digitize everything in the agri-food supply chain. “From the beginning, how we use the seeds, how we grow the grapes, how we prepare our apple orchards all the way down to – was the apple delivered to the consumer? Are they happy with the nutrient content? Or they may have their customized requirements. During the whole chain, we can digitize everything and make everything  a valuable asset to our society,” Jiang said. 

While we’re seeing technological strides, where does the wine industry stack up in this digital revolution? 

A November 2021 report from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) titled, “Digital Trends Applied to the Vine and Wine Sector,” found that “the adoption of digitalisation in the vine and wine sector is still at a low maturity level but with a high rate of growth and potential.” A few reasons for the slow growth, according to the report, are costs for small producers and low commitment from the end-users.

Outside of the farming process, winemaking techniques are also seeing new changes that allow for winemakers to control the composition of wines by, for example, removing acidity or alcohol, according to Nicolas Quillé, author of “Understanding Wine Technology: The Science of Wine Explained.” 

“There is no doubt that the quality is as good as it has ever been and consistent from vintage to vintage,” said Quillé. “I think there is somewhat of a change in technique based on the price point and it feels like there is much more manipulation at the entry-level than it used to be and there is much more desire to have a lighter touch or less manipulation sometime all the way to making styles, that, may be for some,  inappropriate,” he added.

Quillé hopes that winemaking technology can be used more in the quality control phase and less as a corrective approach. “There is always, it seems, a loss of quality when those manipulations happen after the fact as corrective measures versus prevention. I would love for wine to be more natural and less touched because people can foresee what’s going to happen before it happens, rather than try to correct it after the fact.”

Looking forward, OIV predicts that there will be “a significant impact on the wine sector” for technology in the next 5-10 years.  And, as these technologies are introduced, winemakers will have new opportunities and challenges for how they can produce their wines in the future. 

“Everybody is concerned that technology will replace labor in agriculture. But I want to emphasize ‘no’. I want to highlight that technology will re-energize the agriculture industry and retract talent, especially the younger generations for a high tech-based agriculture. We need tons of new technicians who can manage, attend, repair, and operate those robotic systems I just introduced and then agriculture is no longer a low-tech industry, it’s a high-tech one. I hope everyone starts to realize that,” said Jiang.

Mondavi’s company will be delivering their high-tech tractors in the fall all over the world. Their goals, in part, are to address greenhouse gasses (2 gigatons of the 9+ gigatons of co2e in agriculture) and chemicals on farms (reduce by more than 30%) while making farmers more profitable. 

“If our platform can do this by 2050 and all the other sectors work towards our climate goals then I think we can reach climate stability and continue on in a balanced and beautiful way. But it’s going to take each of us pushing forward to meet these goals.”