Mondavi and NASA: Wine Partners


Robert Mondavi Winery is known as one of Napa Valley's most progressive wineries, and it has a long tradition of bringing technologies from other industries to the wine business.

It was Robert Mondavi himself who introduced the now common refrigerated stainless steel fermentation tanks to the wine industry in the late 1960s. Borrowing the idea from the dairy industry, he thought it would increase control and be more sanitary than the old-fashioned wooden tanks.

Since then, Mondavi winery has pioneered other improvements such as humidified barrel storage (which results in less evaporation) and electronic bottle filling technology (previously used only in the fruit juice industry).

And now, in collaboration with scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Mondavi is experimenting with the space-age technology of remote sensing, which is the collection of data from instruments carried on airplanes and satellites.

For the Mondavi project, NASA used a digital camera flown on an airplane about 14,000 feet over Napa and Sonoma counties to create a special "vegetation index" using information from the visible and near-infrared parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. NASA has shared these images with others in the industry, including the consulting companies Winegrow and Terra Spase, which is advising many wineries in California's winemaking regions. (See "Hanzell Joins the Spase Race," H9.)

In 1993, the first year Mondavi turned to NASA, images from the space agency helped Mondavi growers detect infestation of phylloxera--the plant louse that attacks the root system of grapevines and has plagued much of the California wine industry--a year before symptoms become obvious in conventional air photos.

"The vegetation index emphasizes the information on the amount of chlorophyll in the plants," says Lee Johnson, senior remote sensing scientist at NASA Ames. "This information is color-coded and then made into maps which can then be used by the winegrower to make estimates of plant health and maturity," says Johnson.

Mondavi growers use the remote sensing images to see what parts of the field have similar plant density or vigor. This allows the field to be divided into discrete areas that can be sampled on the ground for maturity, then harvested separately. In the past, Mondavi harvested an entire vineyard block at once, based on an estimate of general ripeness, but some grapes would be over-ripe when harvested and others under-ripe. Remote sensing lets Mondavi harvest segments of the fields at different times to better coincide with optimal ripeness.

The early results of this work are impressive. Mondavi has just finished tasting the wine from the NASA experiment, and they have found clear benefits from this approach.

"There were portions of the vineyard that were previously not used for our higher quality wine," says Daniel Bosch, Mondavi vineyards technical manager. "But now the wine from some of those same blocks will be used in our reserve program. That's a big step for us."

The remote sensing data gives winegrowers information that not only allows them to harvest their grapes with more precision but also can be used in the application of fertilizers, irrigation and pest control. Bosch reports that Mondavi will continue to use the remote sensing data in its vineyard operations next year and explore these other uses of the technology.

Unique ideas aren't limited to the vineyard; others at Mondavi have their own approaches to solving problems related to the production process.

For instance, Paul Smith, Mondavi's director of special projects, has "engineered gravity" at several sites in order to minimize mechanical damage to the grapes before fermentation.

The standard method is to crush the grapes, and then to pump the crushed grapes (called "must") from the crusher into the fermentation tanks. But this pumping process can be harsh, often resulting in the crushing of seeds and the release of undesirable compounds into the must.

When Mondavi built its Opus One winery (in partnership with Baron Philippe de Rothschild) in 1990, no expense was spared in applying a new approach to handling the grapes. The architecture of the winery was adapted to fit a gravity flow concept that allows the wine to be transferred as gently as possible throughout the production process.

"At Opus, what we wanted was to crush the grapes right above the tanks, but one of the problems was that we had a flat site to work with," says Smith. "So we constructed a full structural mezzanine that allowed access to the tanks and then installed an elevator to raise the grapes up to that level."

This gravity flow concept worked so well that Smith engineered a similar approach at two more new sites: Mondavi's Carneros crushing and fermentation facility in southern Napa County and its Byron Vineyard and Winery in Santa Barbara County. (Byron was sold to Mondavi in 1990, but founder Ken Brown remains as winemaker.)

"At Opus, we moved the crusher to the tanks; at Byron and Carneros, we decided to move the tanks to the crusher," Smith explains.

Moving the giant fermentation tanks weighing several tons was no mean feat. Smith acquired an air-bearing system from Boeing to move the tanks to the crusher at Carneros. And as soon as that project was completed, work began on an improved system for Byron.

"We finally located a company in Illinois that makes power jacks for moving locomotive batteries, and that's what we installed at Byron," says Smith.

Smith is busy with plans for Mondavi's new Coastal Winery in Monterey County, which should open in 2000. Meanwhile, Glenn Workman, Mondavi business services financial manager, is working on a renovation of Mondavi's flagship winery in Oakville, also scheduled to be finished in 2000. But the approaches to the two projects are quite different.

"We're sitting in one of the premier Cabernet-growing areas in the world," Workman says. "And because we want to match what we can do with the fruit to the quality of the grapes themselves, the goal of the Oakville renovation is to focus on hand-crafting our very high-end Cabernet Sauvignon wines."

To do that, Workman will forgo use of much of the technology Mondavi has developed. Oak fermenters, not stainless steel, and a natural underground barrel storage area are part of the plan. In the art of winemaking, the old ways still are sometimes better than the new.

"The luxury of being such a large organization," Smith says, "is that we can have it all ways."

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