Fruition Sciences' secret to finer wine? Data from the field

Fruition Sciences' secret to finer wine? Data from the field

Learn more from Fruition Sciences co-founder Thibaut Scholasch at Convergence Paris 2013.

We think of Napa Valley as being about wine and Silicon Valley about tech. But Fruition Sciences, a small startup in Oakland, is bringing technology to wine country to help vineyards hack the winemaking process.

Sébastien Payen and Thibaut Scholasch, two French expats who first met in the Bay Area, founded the company in 2008. Using sap sensors, wireless transmission technology and weather data, they help vintners determine how much water their grapevines are using and when they need watering next.

For now, the biggest upside is more control and consistency over grape development. But such precision also can help reduce water consumption, an advantage that could become increasingly attractive as climate change disrupts weather patterns. Here’s an excerpt from our recent conversation.

Worth: Describe your product and what it does.

Payen: The product is really a web application. We’re trying to give winemakers a tool that can help them make decisions to maximize grape quality and yield. When you’re talking about irrigation, it’s never a question of irrigating as much as possible or not irrigating at all. Winegrowers are constantly confronted with the question: to water or not to water? And right now there are very few technology options available to help answer that question. Ours is one of them.

Worth: The solution seems extremely high tech. Is that really necessary to know when to water a vine?

Payen: Actually, it is. Plants can deceive us -- vines especially because they’ve adapted over time to grow on very rocky soil. They’ve developed a lot of mechanisms to deal with hostile environments, and may appear stressed when they are actually just adapting and managing internal water flow. A wine grower relying on visual cues alone can be fooled as to what’s really going on with the vine.

Worth: Explain that further.

Payen: My business partner, Thibaut Scholasch, and I often make the comparison between a vine and a human being running. When it’s hot and sunny, a runner sweats profusely and may even turn red. The runner is exerting, but isn’t on the brink of dying. In cooler, shadier conditions, by contrast, the same runner sweats less and appears less stressed. It’s exactly the same thing for vines. If you’re just relying on what you see, and making irrigation decisions accordingly, you’re going to be fooled most of the time and over-irrigate.

Worth: The key part of your product is the sap flow sensor, which measures the amount of water flowing through the vine. Why do that instead of just measuring the amount of water in the ground?

Payen: Plants react differently in different environments. Measuring the water flowing through the vine is equivalent to asking the plant if it’s thirsty. What we want to know is how much water the plant is actually using compared to how much it would theoretically use in a given climate and environment. To understand the impact, we look at four climactic parameters -- sun, temperature, relative humidity and wind -- and compute how much the plant would transpire given an unlimited supply of water in the ground. We compare those numbers to the actual transpiration measured by the sap sensors. Comparing the two allows us to compute the water deficit across time. We show that data to the customer, and then work with them to decide when to water next and how much.

Worth: Water deficit? Sounds bad. Is the goal to eliminate the deficit?

Payen: Not necessarily. It depends on the varietal. Some varietals like more water, some less. Irrigation decisions should be made based on each vineyard’s quality objectives. How stressed do they need their vines to be to meet those objective?  Our data helps them make the right decisions.

Photo of wine glasses by Shebeko/Shutterstock. Other photos via Fruition Sciences.

Worth: So how does this data help make a better wine?

Payen: With fruit, most farmers irrigate to maximize yield, which means watering as much as they can. The problem with grapes is that their quality is not only determined by how big they are or how much sugar they contain. The ingredients that determine quality are in the skin, especially for red wines. To optimize these quality components, irrigating as much as possible is not going to cut it – in fact, it’s actually detrimental to quality. The trick is finding the optimal balance between too much stress and not enough stress. You want enough stress that the good stuff can get in the skin, but not so much that you kill the plant or keep it from functioning.

Worth: And what sorts of tweaks do you have to make based on different grape varietals?

Payen: Varietals function very differently, and are adapted to their environments of origin. So for French varietals, for example, you have a Pinot noir and Syrah, which are adapted to slightly cooler climates and consume more water. Cabernet Sauvignon, being from Bordeaux, likes water deficit. Our technology allows us to discriminate between these different behaviors and customize an irrigation strategy based on the varietal in question.

Worth: When you take these varietals from France to Northern California, are there more adjustments you need to make, or do the vines develop the same way in the new environment.

Payen: It depends. For Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, Napa is a pretty good match with Bordeaux because the varietal likes water stress. But there are slight differences. Our technology can help winemakers stay within the range – not too much stress, but not too little. One of our objectives at Fruition Sciences is to help winemakers determine if their terroir is too different for a particular varietal, even with irrigation and other tools. In the long run, we hope that our technology and knowledge can help rethink where varietals are planted.

 

Worth: What about the water saving part? Is that a significant factor for winemakers looking to reduce costs?

Payen: At this point, not really. People either don’t pay for water or don’t pay more when they use more. We have very few customers who see the water-saving part as a crucial component. Going forward though, we anticipate more and more regulations and restrictions and water becoming more expensive. As I mentioned earlier, watering based on experience and visual assessment of vines can be deceptive and usually leads to overwatering. So technology such as ours will become more useful over time.

Photo of wine glasses by Shebeko/Shutterstock. Other photos via Fruition Sciences.