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Wine's newest bouquet has hints of berries — and data

You might not be able to detect notes of tech in your glass, but California winemakers are embracing cutting-edge techniques to create world-class vintages.

This is part of our Road Trip 2017 summer series "The Smartest Stuff," about how innovators are thinking up new ways to make you — and the world around you — smarter. 

Does my septum deviate slightly to the left? I wonder this as I stick my nose into a glass of 2016 cabernet sauvignon and feel the burn more strongly down one side than the other. Florencia Palmaz, co-founder and partner at Palmaz Vineyards, tells me this happens to most people.

I'm sitting with four others at a long, honey-colored wood table in her office in Napa, California. Swap out the furniture, and you'd have a hell of an Airbnb with its views of vineyards and a ceiling-high, arched glass doorway. We each have eight glasses lined up in front of us, along with palate-cleansing bread sticks, glasses of water and what look like glass soda bottles filled with wine.

There are periods of near silence as we begin the serious business of tasting. Swirl, sniff, taste, spit. Repeat. After all, it might be Napa — where millions of tourists come to enjoy the iconic scenery, fancy restaurants and, obviously, wine — but everyone in this room is on the job. It's why this tasting also includes a laptop and tablet on the table and a large TV screen on the office wall.

We're looking at graphs.

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Portrait of the artist as a neophyte wine taster, learning about the variables that affect a wine's flavor and smell. 

Celso Bulgatti/CNET

The young red wines in the glasses in front of me all have histories documented in data. That ranges from the time their grapes first peeped out on the vines, to how their particular plots of land affected their growth, to when they were harvested and placed in fermentation tanks, turning into alcohol.

As I swirl the liquid in one glass, Florencia tells me the same kinds of grapes used to make that wine were used in the glass beside it. The only difference is they come from two different parcels of land.

That one element means the wines taste different and smell different — although the complexities are lost on someone whose mouth has never been the same after an unfortunate incident in 1998 with scalding hot chocolate.  

The 9,000-year old tradition of making wine might not conjure visions of the future, but when I ask a wine industry expert about the most cutting-edge wineries, he spells out "P-A-L-M-A-Z."  The Palmaz family is betting that technology and winemaking are a great pairing.

"[Winemakers] are spending less time worrying about mundane details and more time being creative," says Christian Palmaz, president of Palmaz Vineyards and Florencia's younger brother. "My job is to make sure they get all the elements they need to the finish line, so that when they sit down and actually blend the wine, create the wine — paint the painting — those elements are there for them."

To the wine cave!

June temperatures in Napa have been flirting with 100 degrees all week, so stepping through the large wooden doors into the winery is a welcome break from the heat. I walk into a facility built into the side of a hill and 18 stories below ground, where the temperature stays around 63 degrees.

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The inside is cool and dry and smells faintly of alcohol. The walls are rough to the touch, textured with gunite, which you've likely run into inside a swimming pool. The whole place feels like a supervillain's high-end lair, as if Frasier Crane broke bad. It's 100,000 square feet, with tunnels jutting out like spokes from the center of two wheels that are connected to each other.

In the middle of one of those wheels sits a multilevel fermentation room, topped with a dome. Walk to the center, and you're surrounded above by 24 large metal fermentation tanks resting on a carousel that can rotate. It rotates because there's a sorting table on the next level up. This way, the grapes can drop directly into the tanks from the table — it's a little like a circular assembly line.

This is where the wine gets made.

All the tanks are equipped with sensors that feed data on variables like temperature and sugar level back to Palmaz's supercomputer, called Fermentation Intelligent Logic Control System (FILCS, pronounced Felix). FILCS, which has been in place since 2015, can crank out data in real time about what's happening in those tanks. All that data, in turn, gets spit out as graphs in blues, greens and pinks, and projected onto the room's 54-foot-high dome ceiling, nearly covering it.  

In earlier years, Christian had those charts sent to iPads that Palmaz's three winemakers carried around from tank to tank during fermentation. Those iPads kept getting left behind.

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Treasury Wine Estates is testing several kinds of sensors in its Grace Benoist Ranch vineyard, including weather stations that help the company know how much rain the vines are getting.

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"Flashing it on the ceiling was my brother's solution to us ignoring his data," says Florencia.

But why do they need all that data, when people have been making wine for about 9,000 years?

Two words: quality assurance. A lot can go sideways in the winemaking process. There's the unpredictability of the weather, for instance, and unwanted bacteria that can foul up the batch. If you let the heat in the tank increase too much, you kill the yeast that's turning your grape juice into wine.

"It used to be that the winemakers would have to literally sleep at the wineries during that fermentation process," says Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank's Wine Division and author of the Annual State of the Wine Industry Report.

Palmaz Vineyards' supercomputer, FILCS, gives winemakers' real-time status updates of their fermentation tanks. 

Palmaz Vineyards

So say one of your tanks starts tasting funky. "You would immediately start getting anxious," Florencia says. "Without information, you start freaking out and making rash decisions."

Someone left the door open

You can't make sweeping statements about the way the wine industry feels about tech, mostly because there's more than one wine industry. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates about 36 billion bottles of wine are produced every year worldwide. Most countries make wine, even if you're accustomed to thinking of spots like France and Spain.

I'm sitting in Roger Boulton's cool, dark office at the Robert Mondavi Institute (RMI) at University of California at Davis, a school known for its viticulture and enology department. Boulton holds the Stephen Sinclair Scott Endowed Chair in Enology. Jim Lapsley, researcher for University of California's Agricultural Issues Center, is there, too. Boulton and Lapsley tell me this is probably one of the few industries in which the product costs anywhere from a few bucks to almost $1,000, from boxed wine to those that are too pricey to drink.

Boulton explains how factors like "where [the wine] comes from, its vintage or cultivar" affect the different parts of the industry. "If that's not important to the product you're trying to sell, then [technologies] that enhance or capture or collect that for you don't help," he says.

That's where Boulton's life has gotten interesting over the years. It's his task to get winemakers singing from the same hymn sheet in order to get research funding. He's been trying to nudge winemakers toward technologies other industries use. One example: a sanitation process called cross-flow filtration, which the dairy industry adopted years ago.

"There have been a number of examples of technology that [Boulton] has espoused that have been very slow on the uptick within the industry," Lapsley told me a few weeks earlier by phone.

There's no shortage of smart stuff on the UC Davis campus, though.

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Palmaz's gunite-covered tunnels keep temperatures at around 63 degrees Fahrenheit, to prevent the wines from aging too rapidly. 

Palmaz Vineyards

Boulton was instrumental in the construction of a $15 million teaching and research winery completed seven years ago. The self-cleaning tanks are equipped with sensors that control temperature and collect data on sugar levels. The smaller research fermenters use pulse cooling, replacing the water in the cooling jackets around the fermenters only when it gets warm, instead of constantly pumping in cool water. The sensors measure liquid density and, yes, wirelessly report the data.

Boulton is big on food storage sensors, too. He shows me a large touchscreen that pulls up data on two wineries and a dairy that are using his sensors. I see gray graphs with thin yellow, green and blue lines. It looks like a jumble, but Boulton knows those lines represent things like humidity, temperature, carbon dioxide and even particles in the air.

"Somebody left a door open," he says, pointing to one of the lines, noting that any changes in the room show up in the data.

The sense of it?

When I pull up to the gate at the Grace Benoist Ranch Vineyard, in Sonoma, I find Will Drayton waiting for me to follow his silver Ford F-150 onto the grounds. Grace Benoist is one of many vineyards producing grapes for Treasury Wine Estates, the Australia-based wine company that owns more than 45 brands from Australia, California, Tasmania, New Zealand and Italy. This is one of a few sites where Treasury is trying out tech.

For almost a half mile, I follow behind Drayton, Treasury's director of technical viticulture and winemaking, along a narrow road between rows of vines.  I hop into his truck and set off on a search for sensors scattered among the 200 acres of pinot noir vines.

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Winemakers just have to look up at the 54-foot-high dome ceiling to see real-time data about conditions inside Palmaz's fermentation tanks. 

Celso Bulgatti/CNET

As we approach a small bridge, I spot a Pellenc Grape Harvester, which is a yellow-and-black wheeled machine with a slot cut through the middle so it can drive over the vines.

I can't quite decide what sci-fi vehicle to compare it to — maybe a Recognizer from "Tron: Legacy"?

Drayton says it's like the "Transformers of the tractor world," a multifunction machine that cultivates, harvests, destems, pulls and mows — and can reach across three rows of vines when fully extended.

Treasury Wine Estates is testing a few kinds of sensors. There's a flow meter attached to the drip irrigation line that helps the company learn exactly how much water the plants need. Elsewhere, a solar-powered sensor checks ambient air temperature as compared to the temperature of the leaves. It can also count the raindrops that hit it, turning it into a rain gauge.

Meanwhile, drones take multispectral images of the vines, which could help the team quickly spot plant disease. 

And then there are the apps, which do everything from tracking bins of grapes during harvest, to monitoring pests, disease, irrigation, weather forecasts, soil status and growth stage — there's even a field grading list in one so winemakers can note attributes about the grapes like color and flavor.

If these tools prove successful in the long run, they'll get adopted on a wider scale.

So, no — you won't find Lucille Ball stomping around a tub of grapes in these parts.

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It took seven years to excavate and build Palmaz's underground facility, which includes this rotating carousel of fermentation tanks. 

Palmaz Vineyards

Tech and time

Palmaz uses tech in its vineyards too, including spectral imaging to make sure vines are maturing evenly. It also partnered with a local flight school and, on Mondays and Thursdays, it gets overhead infrared images that reveal factors that could affect the vines, like soil nitrates and moisture levels. That eventually gives Palmaz a zoning image that, long story short, helps it decide things like how much to water each row.

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Does tech make a better vintage? Only time will tell. 

Palmaz Vineyards

Based on Monday's picture, the winemakers can adjust and see the results on Thursday. The system is called Vineyard Infrared Growth Optical Recognition, or VIGOR.

Every parcel of land has its own variables — elevation, soil differences, exposure to the sun — which means the grapes ripen at different speeds. Without a system like VIGOR, winemakers have to make the rounds and decide how the grapes are doing, which Florencia describes as a situation "ripe for chaos" when certain grapes haven't matured to the same point as others. The trouble is, you've already picked them.

"[VIGOR] doesn't tell us that the grapes are delicious," Florencia says, "It doesn't tell us even that it'll make good wine. What it's telling us is, is it even."

Because Palmaz only started testing VIGOR in 2016, a year after FILCS, it's hard to say just yet how this affects the vintages. The wine that holds those answers will sit in barrels in the cave until 2018.

"In the winemaking world we get one chance a year, and it takes us three years to find out if the choice is good," she says.

Story in a bottle

Unless you're a fan of really cheap-ass wine ("two-buck Chuck," anyone?), there's a good chance you're picking labels that speak to you in some indefinable way, UC researcher Lapsley tells me.

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Bettmann/Contributor

"When consumers are buying wine and especially when they're buying upper-end wine, they're buying something more than simply the liquid in the bottle," he says. "They're buying place, they're buying story."

Story is a powerful thing, and both Palmaz and Treasury Wine Estates are making sure that tech doesn't overshadow their narrative. Palmaz, for example, takes the view that the traditional process of making wine is essentially intact. They're just watching it with digital eyes.

And at Treasury: "Nothing has replaced the winemaker and the taste bud [as] the ultimate tool. Nothing we've ever done has made wine less interesting." says Drayton.

Florencia's not the first person to tell me that, in a sense, it's the land and the yeast and the weather and everything else that create the result — control over the process is relative.

"Every single winemaker will agree," she says. "We don't make the wine. We just don't fuck it up."

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