The 2014 Vintage Report Conference was held last week at Napa’s Westin Varasa Hotel, and one of the highlights of the conference was the presentation of the Vintage Report Innovation Award.

The winner of the award was a prototype irrigation system developed by the collaboration of E. & J. Gallo and the IBM Corp. It takes the concept of the Internet of Things and demonstrates how it can affect vineyard yield where soil conditions are variable.

The prototype demonstrated a strategy called Variable Rate Irrigation that is aimed at compensating irrigation distribution based on the spatial variability in soil properties of a vineyard. It’s sort of the “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” approach to vineyard irrigation that recognizes that some vines like more water, and some like less. The Goldilocks challenge for the vineyard operator is finding the irrigation formula that is “just right” across the entire spectrum of a vineyard block.

For instance, it’s well-known that different vineyard blocks have different water holding capacities, based on the composition of the soil. A well-drained soil retains water substantially differently from a poorly drained soil. Winemakers and vineyard operators have experimented for years customizing irrigation systems for specific vineyard blocks in hopes of receiving the kind of yields that suit their particular winemaking style. Some winemakers like to stress the grapes, while others want to increase the yield the vines will deliver.

The problem is that any particular vineyard block may have a wide variety of soil compositions within it and deliver a crop yield that is equally variable. But the cost of a finely tuned irrigation system for such conditions was traditionally difficult to quantify and manage, while the value of having such a system was difficult to prove. The Gallo/IBM prototype built such a system and then — step by step — demonstrated its value.

They started with a 31.5-acre vineyard block of cabernet in Wilton that had a full spectrum of yield variables. They mapped the variable yield in 2012, and then used that data as the basis for a reference yield. Then they divided the block into 140 irrigation sections in a grid of 14 zones by 10 zones and installed a system that was able to monitor and deliver proscribed amounts of water to each zone. They also created a second grid of 140 zones of equal variability that used conventional irrigation and monitored it as a control.

In 2013 they were able to prove they could optimize the yields from all the variable zones using the Variable Rate Irrigation System. In other words, they created their own “Goldilocks” zones by monitoring and controlling the irrigation to each zone. In 2014, they reversed the process — reducing the yield of historically high-yield zones while increasing the yield in historically low-yield zones — to prove that they had a wide and full range of control of the vineyard yield using the system.

Luis Sanchez of E. & J. Gallo’s Viticulture, Chemistry and Enology department received the 2014 Vintage Innovation Award for his team of scientists, and he called IBM’s Alan Claassen of IBM’s Systems and Technology Group to the stage to join in the accolades. Sanchez then gave a full presentation of the team’s findings before an audience of about 200.

Fruition Sciences organized the 2014 Vintage Report Conference to bring together winemakers, viticulturists and scientists to discuss the latest innovations and advances in viticulture and enology. The Vintage Report Innovation Award is presented annually by Bank of the West and focuses on new approaches and techniques that are either being used in or are exportable to Napa terroirs.

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Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.

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