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A Vintage Enterprise

April 27, 2016

Winemaking has a reputation as a sleepy, traditional, and almost boring industry – but in recent years, high-tech has hit the wine world, and hit it hard.

Winemaking has a reputation as a sleepy, traditional, and almost boring industry – but in recent years, high-tech has hit the wine world, and hit it hard.

Want to know whether your grapes are thriving? Check out Halter Ranch, where networked vineyard sensors have helped it to reduce water usage by more than half while informing vineyard managers when it’s time to harvest. Chateau Lynch-Bages, one of the most noteworthy wineries in Bordeaux, is testing a technology to continuously monitor the conditions of wine aging inside its barrels. And vineyards of late are covered in flying drones, with California regulars like Hahn and Kunde deploying the autonomous aerial eyes to determine the right time to harvest.

But nowhere is high-tech winemaking more evident than at Palmaz Vineyards, a family winery that is making waves not just due to its lush, balanced cabernet, but also because of the unprecedented level of technology that underlies its operations.

From the outside, Palmaz looks much like any upscale Napa winery, with sophisticated architecture and dense rows of vineyards surrounding the winding drive that leads to its mountainous facility. But stepping into Palmaz is like walking into the lair of a villain from a James Bond movie – or at least it would be if it weren’t filled with beautifully fragrant wine barrels.

Cloud-Based Winemaking

Situated atop 640 acres of prime Napa real estate, Palmaz has been a dream in the making for decades. Built in the 1990s, Palmaz was founded by Julio Palmaz, an Argentina-born doctor who invented the balloon-inflatable coronary stent but who, like many, ultimately fell in love with Napa Valley. After retiring from medicine, he purchased a dilapidated but promising swath of land along Napa’s Silverado Trail. Palmaz renovated the weedy, mattress-festooned grounds, planted new vines, and built a dream winery from scratch. It took seven years to complete the winery, and upon visiting, it’s easy to see why construction took so long: The entire building is carved into the flank of Mount George – a 100,000-square-foot facility that extends 18 stories into the earth. Relying on gravity flow instead of mechanical pumps for the bulk of its operations, freshly picked grapes go into the facility at the top of the mountain. Two years later, wine emerges from the base, where bottling takes place.

All of that makes for nifty eye candy, but the real showstopper at Palmaz is FILCS (technically: Fermentation Intelligence Logic Control System; affectionately: “Felix”), a sophisticated computer network that has become the brains and heart of the operation since coming online in 2014. FILCS is the brainchild of Christian Gaston Palmaz, Julio’s son and the current president of Palmaz Vineyards, a man who is clearly a child of the technology age. Palmaz says he felt that the one thing winemakers valued over anything else – aside from perfect fruit and impeccable weather – was “having choices.” Too many winemakers are forced, often due to winery size or equipment availability, to combine grapes from various vineyard blocks very early in the fermentation process, before their full character is known. “But to make the best wine,” says Palmaz, “a winemaker should wait until the last possible moment before blending.”

As a result of that philosophy, Palmaz became the home to 24 fermentation tanks – a huge number for a winery that makes only 9,000 cases of wine each year – arranged in a ring on an enormous Lazy Susan one level down from the top-floor grape sorter and destemmer. Rather than pump wine into a fermentation tank hundreds of yards away, the tank does the traveling, swiveling into place directly beneath the destemmer. The fruit gently slides down into the tank from above, which is meant to minimize damage to the grapes and avoid jostling their juice.

Once safely in the tank and fermenting, FILCS gets to work. Managing 24 different fermentations at once is a beastly job. Without technological intervention, “winemakers would spend at least 50 percent of their time babysitting the tanks rather than actually making wine,” says Palmaz. To offload that busy work, each tank is outfitted with a sensor that measures, in real time, the amount of sugar remaining in the fermentation. (Wine is “ready” when the sugars from the grapes are converted almost completely into alcohol by yeast.) Additional sensors, custom-designed by Palmaz, measure the temperature of the liquid inside the tank. Rather, they don’t measure it; they model it. Traditional tanks report the temperature at just one point – much like a meat thermometer – but FILCS allows a winemaker to visualize the thermodensity of the entire tank in real time. Because temperature varies considerably at various points inside a tank due to the complex biochemical reactions within, the idea is to give the winemaker a complete and unprecedented look at how fermentation is progressing.

Eye in the Sky

In our tour of the winery, Palmaz saves his biggest trick for last. He taps a button on his iPad and the domed ceiling of the winery lights up with a dashboard-like data visualization of everything FILCS is measuring. NFC tags built into the front of each tank detect when a winemaker is approaching, and the appropriate data visualization for that tank is automatically projected overhead. No more clipboards and manually tabulated spreadsheets; FILCS keeps constant watch over the tanks electronically, logging about 40,000 data points for each tank over the course of a month.

FILCS doesn’t just report the news, though – it analyzes it, too. Palmaz ran a 1-gigabit fiber optic Ethernet to the winery – no small feat considering its remote location – in order to power the vast amount of network-based processing that has to be done, in real time, during a fermentation run.

FILCS isn’t designed to do the computational heavy lifting, so it feeds its data to the cloud, where a complex regression analysis is run on the thermal data that it is constantly collecting. Cloud-based analysis, based on the same algorithms used to model ocean temperatures, is used to watch for any developing problems. Over 200 issues – mostly benign, some serious – can be detected, and the winemaker can receive a text or other alert if the system predicts a problem will arise. The goal, says Palmaz, “is to let the winemaker know before there’s a problem,” something that just wouldn’t be possible without FILCS and the network.

Palmaz has faced criticism from Luddites in the industry who argue that technology is contrary to the traditional values of winemaking and that he is “solving problems that don’t exist.” Palmaz dismisses those arguments, noting that his winemaking process still uses traditional and proven winemaking techniques, eschews additives, and takes great care in truly handcrafting the wines. Computers don’t make wine at Palmaz. They simply give winemakers those choices that Palmaz says they need. Decisions remain in the hands of people. Says Palmaz, “No one should be working on the goal of getting rid of the winemaker.”

This story was produced by the WIRED Brand Lab for Comcast B2B.

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