Can tech make a better pinot?

The CEO of Cypress Semiconductor is determined to discover whether the finest technological gray matter can create the perfect red or white.

It is about an hour's drive from my house to Napa and Sonoma. And about four hours back.

That's the disclosures out of the way. So now might I concentrate and tell you about an enterprising and clearly refined tech CEO who is attempting to discover whether all the tech brains and chips at the world's disposal can perfect the art of wine making?

This is an emotive subject. The more time you spend with the wine community, the more you realize that these are wonderfully temperamental artists.

At one of my favorite Napa wineries, Honig, for example, they are extremely cultured. They make sublime cabernet sauvignon. They even have solar panels. But ask them if they're ever going to make a pinot noir, and they look at you as if you have just suggested that Google should start making sauvignon blanc.

Strangely, though, T.J. Rodgers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, seems to believe that technology and the art of wine making have a chance of a working relationship, with even the occasional embrace.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Rodgers has dedicated time, brains, and money in order to bring technology's finest thinking to the wine-making process.

Can science perfect the grape's juices? CC TibChris/Flickr

Wine is about questions: When? How? How often? What time? With what? By whom? And, most importantly, why? But if at least some of the imponderables can be pondered and even defined, there might be hope that even wine in a box might cease to be quite so difficult and dangerous.

To this end, Rodgers has given 152 stainless-steel fermentation tanks to the University of California, Davis--where so many fine winemakers begin their education--in order to help create something utterly joyous: a research winery. Naturally, there is something special about these tanks. They are brimming with gadgets designed by Cypress' own vast brains.

They monitor the state of the wine as if it were a patient on life support. They send data wirelessly to the winery's computers. You know, things like "too hot" or "sugar high." Or, "can I get a drink around here?" It is all in the finest tech traditions of seeing if more knowledge can bring more joy.

Rodgers became enchanted with the idea of a hydraulic-powered fermenter, for example. So he made one. Now there are 40 at the research winery.

His next project is a spectrophotometer, which will use light to determine what is happening inside the wine. Some wineries currently resort to taking samples and sending them off to labs, a little like your annual physical.

There is something so beautifully quixotic about Rodgers' quest. He already makes his own wine in Redwood City. And one wonders just what steps forward his technological ingeniousness might make. (First results from his gizmos are expected next year.)

He appears not to be willing to technologically challenge the received wisdom of crushing grapes with the bare feet of the unwashed, undocumented, unsober, and uninhibited.

However, if he can improve on, say, Honig Cabernet, Failla Syrah, Deerfield Ranch Sangiovese, the Martin Estate Bacchanal, or the Miner Family Viognier--for these have all passed my own rigorous testing--science might have finally found a way into culture's heart.

Which would be about time.

 

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