The wine sector, though one of the most traditional industries, has over the last few years embarked on a veritable digital revolution, touching on all stages of wine-growing and winemaking. Notable progress has been achieved without compromising the traditional procedures that go to the heart of winemaking and underpin the prestige of famous vineyards.
Winemaking and consumption, which are among the most important of our heritage traditions, have evolved over time through care taken over grape yields and wine quality. Over many centuries of wine production, vintners have brought in the latest technologies in order to create an excellent product. Innovations in viticulture and winemaking have been made at every stage of production, even extending to the wine-tasting stage. France is seen as the world leader when it comes to new technology in the wine sector. However it is noteworthy that the United States, especially the Californian coastal region, is brimming with ideas and initiatives in this field. Given that vintners who have seen their art develop over a very long period are understandably strongly wedded to their knowhow, innovations with a direct bearing on the actual winemaking process are introduced only with a great deal of caution. However, digital technology provides a point of entry for improving the monitoring of both wine production and its conditions on the way to market without any direct impact on the winemaking process.
Digital innovation facilitating production of a legendary beverage
In a vineyard there are many environmental features affecting the final outcome. The practical consequences of meteorological factors are especially difficult to monitor and understand. To help with this, California-based Fruition Science has developed a sensor which is placed on the actual vine to analyze in real time the transpiration rate and flow of water through the vine. The Fruition Sciences system uses an algorithm, coupled with information on weather conditions. Depending on the state of the plant, the vineyard managers will then receive an alert on their mobile phones, tablets or by email. Data is gathered every fifteen minutes, enabling the grower to track how his/her vines are progressing and obtain a complete picture of all the alerts and actions carried out at the vineyards. During the stage when the grapes are fermenting to become wine, there are in existence a large number of mobile apps designed to provide assistance to the winemaker. One example among many here is the Wine Technology Group’s VinWizard, which enables the winemaker to monitor, receive alerts, and adjust the temperature of the tanks during fermentation. Even after the wine has been bottled, the job of monitoring and checking a range of factors which affect the wine is still not finished. Storage conditions may have a serious effect on the quality of the wine when finally poured. With this in mind, the Franco-American firm eprovenance has come up with Near Field Communication-compatible temperature sensors which are placed inside the cases of wine. This means that the temperature of each case can be checked on an NFC-compatible mobile phone during transit and in storage.
Overcoming traditional resistance to change
The winemaking process today is the result of many centuries of know-how, which has also embraced countless innovations. Periodic changes in technique have been accompanied by profound – and sometimes highly controversial – structural changes throughout the sector. New technologies have served to increase grape yields, streamline processes and, in the majority of cases, improve wine quality, but they have nevertheless sometimes met with the criticism that they lack authenticity. One example of this ongoing debate centers on recent advances in technology at the bottling stage, especially as regards the new types of cork. Traditionally-used cork is a remarkable material with the great advantage that it ‘breathes’ but its great disadvantage is the risk of cork taint – the unpalatable ‘corked’ taste caused when it becomes infected by the chlorine compound TCA. Many winemakers have sought to get around all risk of cork taint by using other materials such as plastic, or a screw-cap. US-based VinPerfect has now launched a sophisticated screw-cap – the ‘Smartcap’ solution – which uses a circle of polyester and aluminum to improve the consistency and flow of oxygen into the wine bottle. However, despite the savings that innovations of this kind can undoubtedly bring, they run up against the desire to maintain traditional ‘authenticity’, which is still prevalent in the wine sector. Digital technology on the other hand presents far less of a problem here and so is a more generally acceptable field for innovation. In addition to monitoring and assisting the production process, digital solutions are also to be found on the sales and marketing side. We are now seeing increasing adoption of digital among US winemakers, not least a determined drive to profile themselves on the social networks.