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The Cutting Edge of the Vine

Winemakers and winegrowers aren't the first group you would choose as the most likely to be employing cutting edge technology as part of their work, especially because so much of what goes into wine is about working with the land to produce something that appeals to the senses -- two realms where technology is not a natural player.

However, just as regular farming has gotten more sophisticated, so too has winegrowing and winemaking. Many winemakers are leading the way with uses of extremely high-tech, and sometimes controversial technologies.

Here's an overview of three stories that describe the cutting edge of the vine:

Is That a Neutron Probe in Your Wine?
Cakebread, the well known name from Napa, grows about 300 acres of grapes to make 95,000 cases of wine, which make them about $30 million dollars in revenue per year. While I'm not a huge fan of their wines, they have done a great job of maintaining a brand image of high quality wine, despite the fact that it is clearly big business(which we don't hold against them). Big business means investing in ways to lower your risk and increase your margins, and Cakebread is doing just that with the help of some space-age science. The company sends airplanes equipped with multispectral imaging equipment, the same equipment used by NASA to study the surface of Mars, over its vineyards to identify troubled areas. Additionally, they utilize neutron probes (basically little antennae that radiate neutrons instead of electrons) to measure water levels in the soil. Apparently these two technologies help them proactively manage their grapes more efficiently and to greater advantage. Read more in this article from Fortune Magazine.

No It's Not 'Wi-Fi', It's 'Wine-Fi'
You've heard of micro-climates, right? Well how about meiso-climates? Think even smaller. Yes, that's right the weather and the climate, as well as the qualities of the soil can vary greatly over just a couple of yards. Think about a 14 foot section of vines that fall in the shade of a tree at the edge of a vineyard for several hours a day. Those vines will need significantly different care than the ones which may be only feet away. With this in mind the owners of Pickberry vineyards in Sonoma County are turning to wi-fi micro-sensor technology to give them constantly changing readouts from multiple points within their vineyards. Based on the information collected by the sensors (temperature, moisture, etc.) growers can more selectively apply treatments, water, even time their picking of the grapes to maximize the health, and ultimately the flavor of their fruit. Read more in this article from the BBC.

Kasparov had Big Blue, Will Parker Have His Nemesis?
Anyone who has ever watched a wine price nearly double after receiving a 90+ point rating from Parker (less so with other wine critics, but similar) will understand the value of being able to figure out to make a wine that is more likely to be rated high. Sound impossible? That's what most people say. But Leo McClosky, the founder of Enologix is not most people. He's a molecular chemist and wine freak who says he has isolated the various compounds which make wines taste good, and more than that has learned what combinations of those compounds are found in 95 point wines. With a little help from some top secret computers he can analyze your barrel sample and tell you that if you just added a little more Petite Syrah you'd bump it up into the 90 point range. Most of us, myself included, would scoff at this claim, but Leo has made a convincing enough case that many wineries (who sign stiff contracts with Leo to ensure no one ever finds out they do business with him) are signing up for his services. Paranoia or the future of award winning winemaking? Read more in this article from Wired Magazine.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud