Technology helps cut water usage in vineyards

Fruition Sciences conference turns serious eye toward threat from current drought
2014-01-23T18:45:00Z 2014-01-24T18:29:06Z Technology helps cut water usage in vineyardsL. PIERCE CARSON Napa Valley Register
January 23, 2014 6:45 pm  • 

The specter of a drought more devastating than one recalled in the mid-1970s served as fodder for numerous presentations and discussions at a one-day viticultural conference in Napa on Tuesday.

Put on by Oakland-based Fruition Sciences, the gathering at the Westin Verasa hotel brought together dozens of area vintners and growers to talk not only about the most recent harvest but also how today’s technology is helping them better manage crops and produce better wines.

Founded in 2008 by Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen, Fruition Sciences is an information technology firm providing winemakers and grapegrowers with decision-aiding tools designed to optimize vineyard management. With a focus on monitoring plant physiology, Scholasch and Payen developed programs to aid their clients in “leveraging data so they can make smarter choices” in the vineyard.

Obviously, one of the most important aspects of Fruition Sciences’ efforts is helping those in winegrowing to “be smarter about using less water,” notes co-founder Scholasch.

While speakers looked to the future and analyzed technological impacts on recent harvests, the focus returned again and again to water usage in the vineyards. They were rewarded on several occasions with word that not only does smarter use of irrigation aid in vine health but also result in even better wines.

Nevertheless, the current lack of rain and the ongoing prediction that there’s no rainfall in sight proved to be an important topic.

One afternoon speaker, Saintsbury co-founder David Graves, pulled no punches. “Those (growers) who rely on surface water are in trouble,” the Napa Valley vintner/grower said. Graves is also member of local committee charged with developing a county groundwater management and monitoring plan.

Graves said the current weather pattern comes about as a result of Pacific Decadal Oscillation, often described as a long-lived El Niño-like pattern of Pacific climate variability. He said that pattern has a significant impact on California coastal growing seasons, as in the two-decade-long period between 1977 and 1998 when the region suffered little frost damage.

He noted that the current weather pattern is similar to that of 1976-77. Experts in this field indicated “the current high pressure model is more severe” than one that extended from late 1975 to the winter of 1977. “They predict drought will continue through the end of April.”

Bernard Portet, who launched the Clos Du Val brand here in the early ’70s, recalled the 1976 grape harvest, when conditions were so dry that some of the grapes did not ripen. “Some never made it,” he said. “They started dehydrating. I had some four-year-old merlot vines that gave me just skins and pips. I left 50 percent of the merlot unharvested. The soil was totally dry.

“But then a good chunk of rain came at the right time (in early spring) ... what we needed for the start of the growing season. That saved our 1977 crop.

“This year is scary for me. I don’t see water on the horizon ... maybe not anything until May. But I’m hanging my hat on those late rains we traditionally get in February or March,” he added with the traditional optimism of a veteran Napa grower.

Graves pointed to obvious climate changes in the valley — lower highs and higher lows, in particular. Statewide, he made mention of a sharp decline anticipated in the Sierra snowpack, on which the state water system relies.

Many residents say water for Napa households comes in large measure from local reservoirs, he continued. “Two-thirds of Napa water comes from the North Bay Aqueduct (part of the state’s water system). I don’t know where the water will come from both urban and ag uses.”

However, Graves had a suggestion for growers. He noted that recycled wastewater can be substituted for groundwater or surface water supplies without hurting vine growth. “Embrace recycled water use,” he advised.

Smart water usage

There is now solid evidence that “a vineyard can sustain much less irrigation that it has had in the past,” Scholasch said. Using technology developed by his firm, clients have demonstrated “you can reduce drastically irrigation without have negative impact on wine quality. This has been corroborated by both vineyard managers and winemakers.”

What’s “really important,” he continued, is for growers to “minimize irrigation prior to veraison (onset of ripening) — refrain from watering prior to veraison and then targeting more water following veraison (when grapes take on color). This is a big shift in opinion. In the old days, you gave (the vines) more water before — which only just increased what the plant wanted after veraison.”

Noting that it’s but a few weeks prior to bud break, Scholasch said the vines only need a little water in the spring to help with leaf development; then a reduction until the grapes begin to take on color. At that point, a regular pattern of irrigation can be established.

“Some people have been overusing water ... today you don’t want to waste water. (Growers) need to train the plants early to sustain more moisture deficit in the soil.”

To that end, Fruition Sciences installs sap flow sensors in the vineyard. They collect data to let growers know the vines are transpiring, how they are responding to the weather. In short, the plants then are telling the grower what they need. There are other data gathered as well, giving the farmer an overall picture of the health of the vineyard.

Scholasch said technology is allowing farmers to make informed decisions occasioned by shifting weather patterns and decreasing groundwater supplies.

“The wine industry is late to the show,” he added. “We’re helping (the industry) make sense of this new information ... how data collected is turned into useful information and helping select the information with the greatest impact.”

As an example, dry farming is now being employed at some of Kendall-Jackson’s vineyards and Napa Valley’s Silver Oak has reduced its water requirements by some 50 percent, Scholasch pointed out.

Fruition Sciences’ vineyard analytics are not only being put to good use in California. The firm has clients in France — such as Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux — Italy and Argentina.

Award presentation

Fruition Sciences teamed up with Bank of the West Tuesday to salute a winner and a pair of finalists of the Vintage Report Innovation Award in recognition of innovation and sustainability in viticulture.

Ridge Winery was named award winner for a study on the effects of lag phase thinning on Dry Creek Valley zinfandel. The study — submitted by Lytton Springs viticulturist Will Thomas, son of Quintessa winemaker Charles Thomas, and CSU Fresno grad student Matt Revellette — investigated and tracked the findings of early lag phase vine thinning on grape quality.

Ovid Vineyards winemaker Austin Peterson was recognized for his study of plant water use, and Murphys-based Vineyard Concepts was recognized for its development of bin covers that help maintain fruit temperature during harvest, cold soaks and fermentation.

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