When I was first learning how to tend to some of the prized vineyards in Napa Valley, my father-in-law, Larry Bettinelli, would often say, “There’s no substitute for boots on the ground.”
He was referring to the constant walking of the vine rows and monitoring of daily changes needed to produce the premium quality winegrapes expected from Napa, and I listened intently. After all, he had been farming in the valley for nearly 50 years and came from a long line of farmers with seemingly endless wisdom.
As we walked, he would jot down observations on yellow paper tablets. Anything from notes on weather conditions to “to-do” lists that would be converted to hand-written work orders on more yellow tablets once back at the office.
Although I respected his traditional methods, I knew we were missing a technological edge needed to improve efficiency without compromising quality. Like so many other growers in the valley, our vineyards and business are now wired with high-tech devices and software that allow for remote vineyard monitoring, irrigation control, data organization and much more.
Perhaps the most powerful viticultural tool to come about in recent years is the remote weather station. These solar-powered information gatherers are scattered throughout hundreds of Napa vineyards, streaming to grapegrowers site-specific weather data like temperature, humidity and wind speed accessible via the Web on a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
They use sophisticated models based on temperature and humidity to predict the maturation of vineyard pests or threats of diseases. They can also report water pressures, well depths, flow rates, tank levels — in a nutshell — if it can be measured these devices can record and report it.
Even more impressive is that the stations’ online software can be set to notify growers with a phone call or text if something goes awry like a sudden pressure drop from a broken irrigation pipe, a well running dry, or a dropping temperature posing a frost threat in the spring.
I thought this technology was so powerful when I first got my hands on it I set a parameter for just about everything. I wanted a phone call if the wind changed direction in Rutherford or the humidity spiked in the Carneros. My phone rang needlessly every
15 minutes, and it didn’t take long to reset the parameters so I was only receiving pertinent information.
The remote weather stations acted as a gateway to integrating other powerful technology to control and monitor vineyards from afar. Last year, we automated irrigation pumps, sprinklers, and wind machines so they could be controlled via the Web. First using these tools in combination with all the streaming data from remote weather stations felt like remote-control farming.
Our house and office turned into a command center of sorts with a good portion of my day spent monitoring and timing vineyard decisions from my computer on software with dashboard-type displays. Instead of driving from vineyard to vineyard to set irrigation schedules, start pumps or turn on frost protection in the middle of cold spring nights, I could do these things from anywhere with my computer or phone. This advancement alone drastically cut my driving time, thus saving fuel and allowing me to focus on other daily tasks.
Another powerful tool helping to improve efficiency and grape quality has been the ability to measure vine water needs with sap flow monitors. A collar around the vine’s trunk turns the plant itself into a sensor by measuring the flow of water through the vine. When temperatures increase the vine should theoretically increase its water flow to keep itself cool, but when the flow stops coinciding with rising temperatures we know the vine is stressed and needs irrigation.
This technology paired with soil moisture probes measuring moisture levels in the vines’ root-zones has proven to be a powerful combination for determining timing and amounts of irrigation. Like other technology implemented in vineyards, the data collected challenged traditional methodology. Common irrigation regimes used to include watering 10 hours a week or one deep irrigation around July 4. After the installation of these tools it was apparent that many vineyards needed little to no irrigation throughout the season, especially in years with heavier spring rainfall.
Every technological advancement in viticulture almost invariably creates an overwhelming amount of data, and as a result viticulture-specific databases have been created to organize all aspects of vineyard management from the first clip of the pruning shears in the spring to the delivery of grapes to wineries in the fall.
Growers can now access all vineyard information, create work orders, fertilizer and irrigation programs, graphs and use a whole host of other viticultural tools within these databases from a tablet or smartphone in the vineyard.
The complexity of growing grapes in Napa Valley often requires the attention of many including vineyard owners, managers, winemakers, consultants and pest advisors. Access to the databases can be granted to everyone involved to keep them informed on daily activities and vineyard data that can improve overall grape quality.
In the Napa Valley Grapegrowers’ constant quest to improve grape quality and farming efficiency, technology definitely will continue to change the way wine grapes are grown. It’s not one single technological advancement, but rather the integration of many that collectively lead to proactive decision making based on the support of valuable data. The net result is a better grape and subsequently superior wines. Equally important is the vast savings of resources like fuel, water, and labor and an overall more efficient and sustainable industry.
Nevertheless, my father-in-law’s advice is still valuable. Despite all the technology, we still use the time-tested “boots on the ground” approach by walking vineyards together. He still takes notes on his yellow tablets and now I use a different “tablet” of sorts.
When I see something that needs doing, I snap a picture or short video to either remind myself or send to a foreman with a note explaining what needs attention.
Just to remind him how far we’ve come, I sometimes stop him short of a wind machine or pump in our path and say, “watch this,” as I start it up with a touch of a button on my phone and follow it up by announcing the current weather information from the remote weather station nearby. It is this combination of wisdoms and the integration of all good options that keeps Napa Valley at the forefront for quality and sustainability, and I, for one, am proud to carry on the Napa tradition of farming to the highest level.
Paul Goldberg is vineyard manager at Bettinelli Vineyards and a director of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.