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Winemakers embrace AI and IoT tools to improve their vineyards and produce better wine

Man standing and looking at laptop in one hand while holding a wine glass in the other in front of winery metal vats.
Alexandre Remy, the managing partner and winemaker at Atlas Wine Co. in Somerset, California, uses AI-powered software to create and test different wines.Jyotsna Bhamidipati for BI

This article is part of "Build IT," a series about digital tech and innovation trends that are disrupting industries.

Nearly four years ago, at the start of the pandemic, Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa, California, needed a new business strategy.

The company's president and winemaker, Chris Kajani, wanted to stay connected with customers and distributors amid shutdowns and social-distancing practices.

In March 2020, Kajani started reworking her operations, hosting virtual tastings, keeping in contact with members of the vineyard's wine club, and meeting with distribution partners using a Cisco videoconferencing platform.

Mixing technology with traditional winemaking was commercially successful and popular with Bouchaine's customers. For Kajani and Cisco, it was a sign that they could do more — specifically in the vineyard.

Over the past few years, extreme weather events and unpredictable conditions have affected grape harvests, and consumer demand for wine is down. Vintners are seeking solutions and finding some success in technologies designed to reinvigorate the production process.

Technology is increasingly important in viticulture

In 2021, Bouchaine Vineyards expanded its partnership with Cisco and installed Cisco's industrial Internet of Things, or IoT, sensors across the vineyard. The sensors allow Bouchaine's winemakers to visualize data about temperature, humidity, soil moisture, and wind speed. Sensors inside fermentation tanks can help detect leaks, monitor the fermentation process, and show temperature trends.

Kajani told Business Insider that tracking this data allowed winemakers to "dial in" to different parts of their vineyard and address vine blocks individually. Though winery employees do the cultivation work, like pruning or leafing, by hand, data helps them know which blocks need special attention.

"Not just using one recipe across an entire vineyard, I think, just allows us to grow better grapes and also stops us from wasting any resources," Kajani added.

Photo of a woman with short blond hair in a vineyard tending to a large green grapevine.
Chris Kajani, the winemaker and president of Bouchaine Vineyards, is using technology to improve harvesting.Bob McClenehan

Visually identifying signs of mildew, mold, or dryness on individual vines helps growers monitor grapevine health, predict harvest time, and develop flavor — but it's time- and labor-intensive. Using sensor technology can help save resources and lead to a better wine.

Grapevines are "not like houseplants," Kajani said. "They don't want all the fertilizer. They don't want all the water. You have to starve them a little bit to really concentrate flavor and get the development that you want in the berry."

Wine tech can improve sustainability across the industry

Embracing sustainability has never been more important for vintners. Rising temperatures and extreme weather events are contributing to decreasing crop output and could devastate wine production.

For Alexandre Remy, the managing partner and winemaker at Atlas Wine Co. in Somerset, California, fewer warm days in September meant pushing back the harvest time.

Man standing in between rows of wooden wine barrels
Remy has worked at Atlas Wine Co. for over 10 years.Jyotsna Bhamidipati for BI

Instead of cultivating his grapes in mid-September, as he did in 2022, he had to wait until mid-October to try to match the flavor profile of the wine. "Being a winemaker every year and making the best wine possible is very, very challenging because every year it's changing," he said.

It's essential for vineyards to keep sustainability top of mind during each step of the winemaking process. At Bouchaine, for example, sensor technology is helping preserve valuable resources like water.

Vaughn Walton, an entomologist and researcher at OSU's Oregon Wine Research Institute

The winery uses a process called dry farming, through which vintners take advantage of established root systems and clay soil, forcing the vines to use water already in the ground. Drought conditions across California mean supplementary irrigation is inevitable, but sensor technology helps the crew be judicious about where and when to add water.

"You do the same thing every year, but you do it so differently depending on what Mother Nature throws at you," Kajani said.

Technological developments in pest management could also help reduce chemical contamination due to pesticides and enhance biodiversity.

Man standing in vineyard field.
Remy at Atlas Wine Co.'s vineyard in Somerset, California.Jyotsna Bhamidipati for BI

Vaughn Walton, an entomologist and researcher at Oregon State University's Oregon Wine Research Institute, told BI that while pests native to vineyards, like treehoppers or stink bugs, could spread viruses that negatively impact berry quality, spraying pesticides to kill these bugs could be equally ruinous.

Walton said that spraying pesticides can sometimes kill insects that support vineyard growth, like pollinators, and not actually affect unwanted bugs. "We are spraying ourselves with toxic compounds, spraying ourselves deeper into trouble," he added.

Walton is part of a team at OSU developing an AI- and solar-powered robot designed to disrupt the mating patterns of vineyard pests with vibration. Treehoppers and stink bugs are just two examples of insects that use vibration to find each other.

The robot, called the Pied Piper, emits the same vibrational signals insects use in mating to lure and capture them to be removed from the vineyard.

Side by side collage of two robots used for winemaking
OSU's Pied Piper robot helps remove vineyard pests without the use of toxic chemicals.Vaughn Walton

The Pied Piper is equipped with a microphone to sense when an insect communicates with it, and it replays the signal to create what Walton called a "duet."

"So now you have a computer talking to an insect, and the insect comes to the computer," Walton said. "You as a human being cannot hear the vibrational signal, other insects are not affected by it; only that one specific species is sensing it and is reacting to it."

Walton said he believes that the environmental and market pressures to produce crops in a cleaner way will push growers to try new green technology.

"This is what a lot of growers want. They're very progressive, and they have the long view in mind," Walton said. "This is the technology that has that long view in mind."

AI is helping winemakers find the right blends to market

As younger people gravitate more toward hard seltzers, cocktails, or beer, winemakers are rethinking their marketing.

Remy said the drop in popularity might be due to the complexity of the market. Finding ways to make wine more approachable could help drive growth.

Man pouring wine into graduated cylinder from beaker
Remy tests different wine creations to find a winning recipe.Jyotsna Bhamidipati for BI

Remy, a former wine technical consultant, said that buying wine without knowing what's good can be overwhelming.

"The consumers feel like there's roadblocks instead of opportunities," Remy said. "For the new generation in America, you really have to be comfortable with what you're buying."

AI-powered tools are making headway in the commercial wine market by helping vineyards find optimal wine blends.

Katerina Axelsson, the CEO and founder of the wine-tech company Tastry

Nearly all wines are considered blends. Concocting blends allows vintners to create unique flavor profiles and let the best of each wine shine through in the final product.

But because consumers have different palates, spending money trying to find the perfect blend can be risky for vintners.

Katerina Axelsson, the CEO and founder of Tastry, a California tech company that uses AI and chemistry to create wine-blending recipes, said her software is designed to reduce some of the uncertainty.

Tastry's CompuBlend software uses a database of consumer palate preferences and the chemical flavor matrix of wine samples sent by a winemaker. It then determines the composition of the most balanced wine the winery can make and predicts which blends will sell best.

Laptop screen showing Tastry software with wine samplings next to it.
Remy uses the Tastry program for testing wines.Jyotsna Bhamidipati for BI

"The chemistry is really good at figuring out how to balance the features of the wine," Axelsson said. "A balanced wine is inevitably a higher-quality wine."

Traditionally, vintners have done this by having groups of winemakers try different blends and decide which is best. But Axelsson said this could lead to an issue called "house palate," where the winemakers' preference differs from the customer's palate.

"There's such a disconnect between what the winemaker wants and what the consumer wants," Axelsson added.

Remy told BI that using Tastry's software has helped him market his wine with less risk and given him options he wouldn't have considered. He said he uses the technology to create all of his wines such as the Omen Origins Zinfandel, which has cherry and vanilla notes.

Man pouring wine from bottle into wine glass outside in vineyard
The Omen Origins Zinfandel is one of Atlas Wine Co.'s red wines.Jyotsna Bhamidipati for BI

The pressure to use wine tech is too strong to ignore

Though AI and IoT are relatively new for the industry, Walton and Axelsson said viticulture has always been interested in using technology to help farmers operate more efficiently.

Axelsson said she believes that as AI tools become more ubiquitous, the business case for adopting them will become too strong to ignore.

"If you're not using AI in your business, you are going to be left in the dust," she said. "You kind of have to, to stay competitive."

Walton added that vintners are also businesspeople who have to adopt technology to remain competitive, especially when the technology can help solve environmental, market, and industry problems at the same time.

"It is in the culture of agriculture to try new things," Walton said.

Read the original article on Business Insider