Sustainability is in wine technology

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Ironically, it turns out that producing sustainable wine may require more human intervention, not less.

© Saga Robotics
| The Thorvald robot uses UV light to treat fungal infections in the vineyard.

In recent years, sustainability has been promoted by many as a viable response to the climate crisis.

Winemakers have responded to all sorts of nightmare scenarios — prolonged drought, wildfires, late-season frosts, hailstorms — by cleaning up their act. Witness: a billion press releases on the defense of biodiversity; the elimination of synthetic inputs; reduction of the carbon footprint.

Marketers understandably love this rhetoric; save the planet by trusting nature and encourage brand loyalty. Yet, as historian Niall Ferguson frequently observes, initiatives such as reducing the carbon footprint close the stable door after the horse is gone. As long as developing economies like China and India maintain their heroic production of CO2, climate change is inevitable (he argues). In this scenario, the wine industry’s only hope is adaptation to a new normal. And to adapt, producers need a boost from the laboratory.

This is arguably sustainability in its “purest” form; relying on scientific innovation and manufacturing technology to ensure viticulture remains sustainable – and profitable – in the 21st century. Unfortunately, you can’t really sell this version in today’s zeitgeist because it doesn’t encourage virtue signaling. But in the longer term, sustainable viticulture will require a redefinition of the nomenclature, that is to say a strong involvement of man. A hands-off approach, no matter how appealing, is suicide.

Technology in action

I have seen this several times. Outwardly, Gallic winegrowers disdain the idea of ​​using genetic advances to revolutionize their viticulture. Indeed, passions were kindled when the French government introduced four new hybrid varieties – Floreal, Vidoc, Voltis and Artaban – in 2018. Nevertheless, many (private) growers admitted that hybrids were the most profitable way to keep them active. Of course, few of them would be registered.

“My reaction was simple: finally, not a moment too soon,” said winemaker Laurent Delaunay in 2018.

“Degeneration of the vine and vine diseases such as esca cause, in some regions, up to 20% crop loss. Since the only remedy we currently have for esca – arsenite sodium – was banned for obvious reasons, the industry lacked a viable solution. New grape varieties including hybrids are one of the answers to these challenges. Robust and resistant to diseases, these laboratory creations are surely the future.

Deep-pocketed wineries may also turn to robotics for salvation. In 2020, a team of scientists and makers unveiled Thorvald to the world. Developed by Cornell AgriTech in New York, the University of Florida and Norwegian company SAGA Robotics, the machine is equipped with ultraviolet (UV) lights designed to blast fungal diseases into oblivion. As things stand, production costs are significant. However, larger-scale robot manufacturing projects could help make this technological marvel a welcome feature in many wineries. Low intervention viticulture and an abundance of wildflowers mean little in the face of a nasty powdery mildew attack. You will desperately need a dose of Thorvald.

“A PhD student named Aruppillai Suthparan demonstrated that the UV treatment should be applied at night,” explains project manager David Gadoury.

“These fungal pathogens have a built-in defense mechanism against natural UV light – they use the blue light emitted during the day to repair their cell damage. But at night this defense breaks down. So only a small dose of light UV is required, which is effective in killing single-celled organisms, but does not harm crops. Thorvald uses a very sophisticated GPS system and is almost completely self-contained.”

There are now examples of agricultural technologies in use in all major regions. In the Chianti Classico, Ricasoli relied on weather forecasting systems and gleaming new gear. Whisper it: You can’t make these wine tools from quinoa or vegan beef tenderloin. They need factories, energy and maybe even fossil fuels.

“In 2020, we purchased a 4.0 tractor, a machine capable of managing the application of variable rate fertilization, that is, the rationalization of this process by applying fertilizers only where it is The machine is able to do this, thanks to its intelligent system which can read so-called “vigor maps” made from photos taken by drones”, explains Ricasoli’s technical director, Massimiliano Biagi.

“In our vineyards we also have a widespread presence of weather stations, which allow the use of vine disease forecasting models (DSS, Decision Support Systems), so we only use treatments when they are really Our system is managed in collaboration with a spin-off from the University of Padova which has a very rich database and has the necessary software to analyze these large amounts of data in order to predict possible fungal diseases in a very precise.”

Recycling can use more energy than it saves.

© iStock
| Recycling can use more energy than it saves.

Of course, the innovation tested does not only concern robots and tractors. The Tuscan brand Siepi has decided to combine natural resources with human ingenuity in the fight against global warming.

“We use kaolin (fine, white rock powder) which, dissolved in water, is spread over the leaves and grapes in order to “whiten” them completely and create a mirror effect against direct sunlight, in the aim of reducing the surface temperature in both areas”, explains Gionata Pulignani, technical director and winemaker of Siepi.

Others trust latex. You may remember that several European regions have been devastated by hail attacks in recent years. Fortunately, there is a solution: a project sponsored by the Saint-Émilion appellation council involves using radar and helium balloons to protect vineyards from the threat of hailstorms. The radar serves as an early warning system, designed to activate the balloons if a threat is perceived. The balloons would then disperse the salt into the atmosphere, lowering the freezing point of the water and thus turning the hail into harmless rain.

the big lie

If only these vital technological innovations received more airtime. After composing endless propaganda about eco-friendly practices, surely 21st-century winemakers could load the press with their own sense of complacency. There is a certain feeling of “green fatigue”.

Certainly, encouraging greater biodiversity is a plan with few downsides. Removing (some) synthetic inputs is good for vine health and wine quality, but all is not as it seems in this murky world. Initial sustainability messages often lack nuance, deliberately avoiding all the tough questions about energy trade-offs and the metric(s) used to analyze carbon footprint reduction. Dominique Tourneix, managing director of the closure company Diam Bouchage, once remarked that a thorough examination of the environmental impact of recycling is sorely lacking – recycling plants require considerable energy resources, thus producing a carbon footprint relatively high.

“I have the feeling that sometimes we are faced in sustainability communication with what I call ‘environmental deception’,” Tourneix said in 2019.

“Recycling is one example. Do we ever see an assessment of the carbon footprint of the collection processes needed to recycle products? What is worth doing for heavy packaging like glass – putting in place a specific collection stream – may not justify the same effort for lightweight packaging Has anyone compared the actual environmental impact between specific stream chains and a common chain where plastic packaging can be collected with other streams?

None of this would matter if sustainability, as it is commonly understood, offered a credible solution to the problems of today and tomorrow. Yet, at best, it’s an exercise in preposterous slapping, with few social benefits. I suspect most winemakers understand this secretly, outwardly toeing the environmental line, inwardly examining what inventions and new technologies can save their future.

More than 15 years ago, Al Gore described climate change as an “inconvenient truth”. But here’s another one: A paradigm that advocates minimizing human inputs is reckless and counterproductive, whether millennials weaken or not. It is the scientists in white coats who are destined to save us.

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