Wireless Winemaking
By Jeff Goldman, Thu Jul 24 12:15:46 GMT 2003

Vintners and researchers are working together to bring wireless technology into the vineyard, giving winemakers access to a breadth of data they've never had before.

A video camera rests quietly on a trailer in an unlikely location: the middle of a sunny California vineyard. Connected over a wireless link to a server miles away, the camera can be operated remotely using an online interface. With the click of a mouse, a vintner can pan the camera back and forth across the vineyard, zooming in to focus on a plant, a leaf, even a single grape.

This is VitCam, part of a system created by California's Scheid Vineyards, which supplies grapes to large wineries like Niebaum-Coppola and Beringer Vineyards. According to Tony Stephen, Scheid's Director of Wine Grape Marketing and Sales, while VitCam is great for marketing Scheid's grapes to potential clients, it's also an excellent management tool.

"I can use it to see the growth of the canopy, see water dropping from the emitters, see how irrigation's doing, what the weed control is like," Stephen said. "You can zoom in on the fruit and see how the color is, see what the crop is like. We have wineries that buy grapes from us that are based hundreds of miles away: this keeps them in touch with the vineyard."

VitCam, though, is only a beginning. Winemakers and researchers are exploring a wide range of applications for wireless in the vineyard, using technology to give winemakers access to a breadth of information that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

The High-Tech Vineyard

VitCam is one part of Scheid's online information system, VitWatch, which provides the company's clients with data on everything from grape maturity to irrigation history. Key to the system is a network of wireless sensors and cameras developed by Scheid's Chief Information Officer, Tom Hornick.

The sensor network currently consists of a group of weather stations which transmit data back to the main office every 15 minutes. While the first stations he set up were connected over telephone lines, Hornick says he's now expanding beyond that limitation. "The newer ones are in locations where there's no electricity and no telephone lines or even cell phone access," he said.

To provide access in those locations, Hornick is using 802.11b wireless equipment. Most of Scheid's vineyards, he says, are now blanketed with wireless. And according to Tony Stephen, that kind of coverage opens up a new range of possibilities. "We'll continue to add applications for things like pest management and irrigation management, using wireless handheld data collection," he said.

Once you bring wireless into the equation, Stephen says, all kinds of ideas pop up. "We're working with new sensors that you stick in the stem of the leaf to measure stress on the vine," he said. "We're also looking at putting sensors on our harvesters that will transmit yield and analytical data about the fruit in real time. And that's all wirelessly transmitted back to our servers."

Researching the Grape

At the university level, researchers are using advanced wireless systems to provide vintners with information in even greater detail. In separate projects at Berkeley's Intel Research Lab and at the University of Western Australia, groups are studying the potential of using wireless motes, or small sensors, in vineyards.

According to Berkeley researcher Anind Dey, this is part of a larger trend. "People are getting interested in understanding spaces that they normally couldn't," Dey said. "Right now, a vintner typically has one weather station for his entire vineyard, but a lot of vineyards are built on the sides of valleys: if you go up or down 100 feet, you're going to get a completely different temperature reading."

The idea is to enable the motes to communicate with each other, dynamically forming their own ad hoc networks that can compensate if any one mote breaks down. Once the motes are being manufactured on a large scale, Dey says, they'll cost as little as five dollars each. At that price, they can be placed throughout a vineyard, providing detailed and location-specific data on everything from temperature to soil moisture.

According to David Glance of the University of Western Australia, there are two key challenges in this effort. First, the motes have to run for years on one battery, with the possible aid of solar power or other energy sources. The second challenge occurs when the data comes in. "The sensors collect a huge amount of data," Glance said. "We're working on novel ways of analyzing that data once we've got it."

Still, for grape growers like Scheid's Tom Hornick, the potential is enormous. As technology provides vintners with more and more data about their grapes, he says, they're empowered to improve the wines they produce. "It's all about helping people make irrigation decisions, frost protection decisions, things like that," Hornick said. "We want them to know exactly what's going on out there."

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering business and technology issues for publications ranging from Wireless Business & Technology magazine to Jupitermedia's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.