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Plotting the perfect pinot
By Nathan Welton
South Coast Beacon


Within a few years, wine bottle labels may drop poetic buzzwords, like fruity, full-bodied and smooth — and replace them with, say, “dry” phrases, like reflected isolation, directional aspect and ground heat flux.

With the help of modern gadgetry, geographers from Bordeaux to Santa Ynez are infusing a little new-fangled technology into the ancient art of wine making. It’s called precision farming, it’s all the rage amongst agronomists and it represents a promising way to make crop production less expensive and more efficient, stable and predictable.

“This technology is certainly part of the future,” said Keir Keightley, a wine chemist at Santa Ynez’s Firestone Vineyards, one of the several local operations involved in precision agriculture. “Tomatoes, cotton and many other industries are really buying into the idea of (using this) on farms.”

Precision farming essentially revolves around creating highly informative maps using geographical information systems, or GIS, which allow land managers to add data in multiple visual layers onto the map. This would allow growers to build accurate pictures of what’s going on in their vineyards in order to produce superior grapes.

“In California there’s an increasing demand for wines in all different levels, and if certain growers could produce a better grape, they could go from losing money or not making much to making a lot,” said Paul Rich, a geographer at Los Alamos National Laboratories and at UCSB. “Grape quality and consistency can pay off in a big way, so it’s increasingly important to manage viticulture in a more precise manner.”

Basic GIS vineyard maps, which range from $2,000 to $5,000, begin with aerial photographs and include data on past years’ grape yields and quality, which growers can use to begin to decide what does and doesn’t work.

But the maps can get far more complex: once a GIS expert has created a map, agronomists can add many more data layers, including information on the slope of the land, the type of soil, the amount of direct light the grapes receive, the land’s altitude, the direction of the trellises and the type of trellising upon which the grapes grow, among other things.

“We can turn (existing data already collected at the vineyard) into smart maps,” said Josh Metz, a GIS expert at UCSB and the owner of Geovine, which ties together precision farming and vineyards.

He explained that by outlining boundaries of vineyard blocks — and associating data on productivity and sugar content with those geographic boundaries — growers can begin to see how different sites or management practices affect production.

But while sugar concentration or yield affect the overall quality and amount of product, the subtleties that make the difference between a good wine and a great wine frequently depend on secondary compounds in the grape’s skin, which are regulated by growing temperature and are difficult to control.

As such, UCSB’s Rich is currently perfecting ways to stabilize growing temperatures by studying how grapes are arranged on trellises and how they’re pruned. Since trellises can create a canopy over the vineyard — a canopy that can trap heat — Rich is exploring ways to regulate the microclimate at the base of the grapevine. By using a fisheye lens to take pictures from beneath the grapevine, he can measure how much light and heat gets through — and gets trapped in by — the canopy. Then, using GIS, he can actually test how the various microclimates, dictated by trellises, will ultimately affect the subtleties of wine taste.

Another benefit of precision farming is that it helps vineyard managers more accurately predict, based on trends in past years, how they’ll fare in the future. That affects how much money they pour into things like labor and winemaking supplies.

But what may prove most beneficial to wineries in Santa Barbara County, given the region’s eco-friendly populous, is that GIS allows farmers to be more environmentally sensitive. The maps help prevent over fertilizing, help ensure that crops are laid out more responsibly or acceptably — so as not to be too close to a stream, for example — and even help growers minimize their water useage.

“I think a shift in that is happening,” said Keightley, “especially in high-value crops like grapes, where people are buying not only your wine, but also your ideas.”