Swiss Touch in Wine & Tech
Wine & Tech have been linked for quite some time. From drones that spray the vines and help monitor farm health, to smart sensors in decanters and virtual tastings, technology does impact what is in our wine glass and how we enjoy it. Technology not only supports the winegrowing industry, but also food farming in general. The Swiss Touch in Wine & Tech webinar, organized by the Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco, explores the intersections of wine and technology with four panelists, who present how they use and create technology to better the winemaking process in the present and future. Two centuries after founding the first wine association in the US, the Swiss emigrants in the United States continue to innovate and to be pioneers in the wine industry. The one-hour webinar is available here and the interview below is a complement to the webinar. It gives the panelists and the moderator the opportunity to answer more in depth some of the questions the webinar participants had on this topic.
What are the risks and opportunities for wineries using technology?
Dava Guthmiller: Technology is now an invaluable part of business, even in those as romantic and driven by personal tastes as winemaking, farming, and food production. But, you can lose that personal touch, that deeper story, when tech gets in the way. Wine and food are driven by personal taste, both from the producer and the consumer. Choosing the tech that removes inefficiencies and enhances your offering can allow you to spend more time on the emotional and value-driven aspects of your brand. Choose wisely.
“Big data” is becoming more and more common. Do modern data analysis methods play a role in winemaking and, if so, how are they being used to increase wine production (or taste)?
William Metz: Absolutely. Technology is constantly giving us new data sources and those who ask the right questions will be able to use the data to the benefit of their winemaking and business goals. In recent years, I have seen three major trends:
1. At Precision Vine, the majority of my work is focused on the use of remote sensing time-series data to segment a vineyard into lots for harvest and separate fermentations. In the most successful case, the wineries will even retrofit their cellars, adjusting the tank size to their new preferred harvest units. The goal here is to maximize the uniqueness of different lots prior to the blending of the final wine.
2. On the industrial side, big data can be leveraged to identify new market trends. Large consumer preference data sets are used to group wines into product categories. With deep knowledge of grape variety characteristics, along with viticulture market data such as planted surface and pricing history, a crafty wine company can reverse engineer a theoretical wine, which may please most, but not all wine consumers. This combination of consumer insights with agricultural data has been the basic recipe for creating numerous supermarket best-sellers of the last decade. Today, with almost unlimited social media-generated consumer data and the boom in agtech (agricultural technology), the toolbelt is only strengthened for this approach to become more and more sophisticated.
3. Finally, data is making a big difference on the supply management side of winemaking. Producers have always been challenged to match consumer demand with a product that may take several years to get to market (and even more when considering vineyard development). Yields can vary quite significantly year to year, only complicating the challenge. I think those who can correctly merge sales forecasts with early crop yield predictors are set up to avoid several problems that many wineries can face in both above- and below-average yielding years. When they trust their data, they can also get the better end of the deal when setting up contracts for buying or selling fruit.
How do you look at changes in customer taste?
Dava Guthmiller: Consumers’ tastes change all the time as they are used to experiencing the novel and new. But, right now, people are craving comfort in this crazy unknown. For brands it is smart to be aware of what your audience is into, but in the long run, it is important to stay true to your brand’s values and authentic points of differentiation. If you constantly try to catch consumer trends, you will be out of date quickly.
What is the difference in US vs. European wine styles?
Jean Hoefliger: Wine style has travelled through borders and is now, like many things, a worldwide phenomenon. We are seeing a trend where the US wine is more balanced, while European wines are slightly denser. But overall, it seems that the world is working towards a happy middle.
Does moving an established business from the US to Switzerland make any sense?
René Schlatter: Moving our business to Switzerland is not really an option, since our investments are here in the US. However, investing in land and vineyards in Switzerland and starting a new brand or expand our wine portfolio are always an option.
How does global warming affect the wine taste?
Jean Hoefliger: The global warming affects mostly the variety of wine planted. Even in cooler areas, we are now seeing more heat-resistant varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc). Thinner skin varietals (Whites in general and Pinot for example) are not grown as much in warmer climate areas as the heat peak can be much higher.
How do winemakers prepare for a future with higher temperatures and less humidity?
Jodoc Elmiger: With drones! For crop protection and disease control, the flexibility of drone operation is a huge advantage. Vineyard diseases are very sensitive to weather and a light rain can activate bacteria or mushrooms very quickly.
Besides, other diseases will certainly appear with climate change, requiring winemakers to work more in the vineyards to treat them.
With a fully autonomous drone, the winemaker can act fast and easily. All winemakers find treatment cumbersome, but Aero41 drones make it a breeze.
Do you collect weather data? How are they interpreted in terms of mildew control?
William Metz: We do not collect weather data, but we do use them. Often we get them through other technology companies or from on-site weather stations.
The great thing about many plant pathogens, including mildew, is that they are rather predictable and their life cycles can be modeled fairly accurately using data from a weather station. This is often done at a regional level by a public institution or trade association that publishes alerts for the appropriate time to spray. Collecting the proper data at your own vineyard means you can adapt the models to your local conditions. What has changed recently is that we see more data collection being done inside of the vine canopy, representing where the disease actually grows rather than at the vineyard farmhouse.
What are the main obstacles in switching to an organic winemaking system?
René Schlatter: The main obstacles in moving to an organic winemaking system are associated with the costs involved as well as the specific vineyard location.
Organic fungicides/herbicides/pesticides need to be applied at greater frequency as they degrade faster in the vineyard and, in some cases, are not as potent as conventional chemicals, which will in turn increase costs of labor and material.
Vineyards located in areas of high moisture and pest (insect) pressure, for instance Stanly Ranch Estate in Carneros, require a different farming than areas with good air flow and less pest pressure, such as in the Profile Estate Vineyard in Conn Valley. Sometimes, in instances of high mildew or infestation, it makes more sense to farm conventionally in spots to protect the overall health of the vineyard, rather than a purely organic approach.
It is much easier to just apply conventional practices and sprays to vineyards in a formulaic approach than it is to learn a specific vineyard’s needs and tailor farming at a block-specific level. Organic farming, to some degree, requires at least an effort to learn about what is best for the vineyard at a micro-level, which requires work and time.
The term “organic” generally addresses the vineyard part of winemaking while a sustainable approach to farming and winemaking takes a broader view. We employ sustainable farming and winemaking practices in the vineyards (and in the case of our Profile Estate it has been farmed organically for the last few years) and winery, respectively, and are motivated by being good stewards of the land and creating a positive ecosystem.
I heard that in Switzerland helicopters pick up the fall harvest. Is this a common thing to do? Is it economical?
Jodoc Elmiger: No, it is quite unusual to see helicopters do that kind of tasks, as for the economical aspect, it does save time and pain.
Switzerland is currently the only country in Europe to still allow the use of helicopters for crop protection, but we at Aero41 know that this situation will end very soon. That is why we already work with winemakers who shift from helicopters to drone operations.
Aero41 drones are more efficient, have much higher precision with no spray drift, a much higher quality of application and are much quieter and more ecofriendly (electronic motors vs jet turbines).
On top of this, we work increasingly with organic treatments and aim to have fully autonomous drone so that the prices can be reduced drastically and organic wine production can be cheaper.
The wine industry is still very male-dominant, what are the barriers for women to enter the industry?
René Schlatter: Women are significantly overrepresented in human resources and marketing, and underrepresented in operations, sales, viticulture, IT, and winemaking. Only an estimated 10% of winemakers in California are female despite the fact that for the past 15 years, women have on average made up 42% of graduates from the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology program.
The barriers for women entering the wine industry are similar to other historically male-dominated fields — there is a perception that women are physically not strong enough to work in a cellar or vineyard, and that the long hours required during harvest conflict with raising children at home. In addition, the wine world has been dominated by men for generations and with less women in leadership roles and positions that hire and mentor other women, the change is very slow.
What is a good source of information on what kind of grapes to grow in the backyard in Southern California and where to get them from?
Jean Hoefliger: It depends on the soil that you have and the orientation. You can look online at UC Davis for example. As far as sourcing the plant is concerned, we have many good nurseries in CA that will send you what you need. But if you want some guidance, I can help you. Feel free to email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Where can I find Swiss wine in California?
While we talked about Swiss wine export in the webinar, we only mentioned a couple of the wineries with Swiss ties in California. Here is a non-exhaustive lists of wineries that are connected with Switzerland. This list may not be seen as a recommendation from the Consulate.
Alpha Omega Winery www.aowinery.com
Benziger Family Winery www.benziger.com
Berthoud Vineyards & Winery www.berthoudwinery.com
Bucher Wines www.bucher.wine
Cuvaison Cellars www.cuvaison.com
Hahn Estates / Smith & Hook Winery www.hahnestates.com
Hess Collection www.hesscollection.com
Markus Wine www.markuswine.com
Merryvale Family of Wines www.merryvale.com
The Debate www.thedebatewine.com
Vina Robles www.vinarobles.com
Weibel Family Winery www.weibelwine.com
About the Panelists:
— René Schlatter, CEO, Merryvale Family of Wines — https://www.merryvalefamilyofwines.com
Proprietor & CEO of Merryvale Family of Wines since 2008, René Schlatter has an unyielding commitment to wine quality, customer service, and investment in the community, and continues to uphold his family’s legacy in the wine-growing world.
A native of Switzerland, René has lived in the U.S. since 1987, having attended Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, as undergraduate. Upon completion of his degree, he returned to Europe and worked for several years as a businessman in various industries. In 1994, he moved back to the U.S.
René and his family are very committed to protecting and preserving Napa Valley for future generations using sustainable practices. Both of Merryvale’s estate vineyards are Napa Green Farm certified.
— Jean Hoefliger, Consultant Winemaker — https://www.jhwineconsulting.com
Jean Hoefliger was born and raised in Switzerland. He is an artisan inherently driven to push the envelope, continually challenging cognizance of not only winemaking, but life in general. In his winemaking, the essence of his experiences is brought to life through a particular craft: fundamentally balanced by his experiences in Bordeaux, now left unbridled on the frontier of Napa Valley, a delectable intersection between the past and future of wine. In California, he first worked at Michel Schlumberger and Hartford Family in Sonoma, followed by Bordeaux and South Africa. After completing a winemaking and viticulture degree at the Swiss federal school of Changins, Jean returned to Bordeaux making wine at Chateau Lynch-Bages, moving back to California in 2001.
In 2005 Jean started Alpha Omega Winery as the Winemaker and General Manager while concurrently building his consulting business with many projects around the world. In 2019, Jean shifted his career to become a full time Consulting Winemaker. His passion, knowledge, scientific training, and innate ability put him in a unique position to take the best grapes around the world and transform them into wines and brands worthy of world-class standing.
— William Metz, Product Manager, Gamaya — http://gamaya.com
After studying viticulture and enology at California Polytechnic University in California, William relocated to Switzerland to continue his winemaking education at Changins. Along the way, he had winemaking experiences in California, France, New Zealand, and Switzerland. Throughout these experiences he became evermore obsessed with how recent advances in remote sensing and computing could augment human observation within vineyards and lead to better decision-making in the field and cellar, plus clear a host of communication issues between growers and winemakers.
After leading Precision Vine from 2016 to 2019, William joined the product management organization of Gamaya, applying what he learned in precision viticulture to other cropping systems. Gamaya is a Swiss digital agronomy company founded in 2015 as a spin-off of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) on a mission to tackle the global challenge of the pressing food scarcity under the motto ‘know your land’. In 2020, Gamaya will adopt and industrialize the product portfolio of Precision Vine to launch an open beta testing program for the Californian market.
— Jodoc Elmiger, Business Development, Aero41 — https://www.aero41.ch
Since 2018, Jodoc has been working at Aero41, a Swiss start-up bringing together a team of experts in the fields of flying robotics, aviation, and advanced applications in the commercial civil drone sector.
European pioneers in the development of drones dedicated to crop protection as well as frames with high carrying capacity, the Aero41 team is committed to constantly improving its products to bring added value in terms of environment and safety of the users.
Panel Moderated by:
- Dava Guthmiller, Founder, Noise 13 https://noise13.com
and Co-Founder, In/visible Talks https://invisibletalks.com
Dava Guthmiller, Moderator of the Panel, Founder and Chief Creative Officer at Noise 13
Dava is the Founder and Chief Creative Officer at Noise 13, a branding and design agency that focuses on lifestyle brands. She has over 20 years of experience leading strategy and design projects with clients such as Uber, Tile, Planet, Twitter, Pacific Catch, World Wrapps and Paso Wine.
Dava is also a board member of Slow Food California and advisor for Good Food Awards. She occasionally gets her hands on fine art, and lectures about brand for business. She has been featured in publications such as HOW, Communication Arts, Forbes, Huffington Post, and Print Magazine.