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Wine can of their wits the wise beguile, Make the sage frolic, and the serious smile."

Homer, Greek storyteller, in the Odyssey, long ago. 


Weather, Land and Space

Winery Insight Featured Article - January 2006 by Timothy O. Rice


When our early ancestors began making wine, they did not know what they were doing. 

Whoever drank the first fermented grape juice and liked it, the discovery was probably an accident.  From there, the process of improvement was slow and virtually random, marked by occasional inspiration and the hard work of unknown contributors.


Fermented grapes tasted better than the alternatives (although fermented honey wine or mead was long popular), so humans set out to gather them where they grew.  As civilizations grew, they were cultivated near habitations instead of growing wild in nature.  Grape tenders of old must have puzzled over dying vines, blights and pestilence, blaming their disasters on the whims of the gods and the curses of enemies.  Good vintages must have seemed a blessing from on high, a sign of special fortune.


Trial and error would have shown that some grapes gave a better taste than others as the decades and centuries passed.  But many grape varieties are hard to tell apart from their near cousins, even with modern technology.  Ancient Greeks and Romans, Babylonians and all the winemakers through the ages might have screamed their frustration at the dead-ends and false clues they stumbled through trying to improve their wine.


Certainly there must have been those who saw patterns over the years, who identified varieties and relationships that produced good wine.  Progress was made, and tradition handed down the advances to the next generation.  Only when the printing press arrived would systemic exchange of such knowledge become widespread.


But even then, the mysteries of why this year’s crop was good and last year’s crop from the same vineyard was bad must have driven winemakers batty.  Was the weather too hot or too cold?  Too wet or too dry?  Too much sun or not enough?  Why did the same grapes do so well in your neighbor’s plot and not at all well in yours?  Why did this variety do well in rocky, good-for-nothing land while that variety died?


As information spread with the coming of world travel, the searchers after knowledge must have been even more puzzled.  Why had vineyards been successful in England during the Roman times but died out in later centuries?  Why did other areas seem to grow fine vintages century after century?  Why did what seemed to be the same grape seem to make so different a wine when grown in different places ( like Pinot Grigio in Italy and Pinot Gris in Alsace)?


By the late 18th century, we have what may have been the first true wine tourist, Thomas Jefferson, traveling through Europe to see and to taste, asking questions, keeping notes.  Centuries of monks and family winemakers were beginning to put the pieces together.  A few decades more and they were beginning to make a science of it – just as phylloxera struck and nearly destroyed the worldwide wine industry.


From that disaster, a curious triumph emerged.  Desperate winemakers searched everywhere for a solution, planting new vineyards in the Americas and Africa and Australia, pushing to the ends of the Earth as they sought to evade the pestilence that had descended upon them.  At the same time, they applied all that the new science of the nineteenth century to the threat.  The disciplines of chemistry and biology (with all their new tools such as microscopes), the scientific method, and advanced analysis techniques narrowed down the possibilities and identified the culprit.  A solution was found in the grafting of American rootstock, resistant to the bug, to European vines.  In the process, wider avenues were opened for the study of viticulture and the improvement of wine knowledge.


More and more became known of how land affected the grapes.  Records of climate changes began to show patterns that related to the vintages more closely.  Varieties were classified more clearly.  Formal education in viticulture became available, and learned men studied the problems of the vineyard.


By the late twentieth century, techniques and knowledge had advanced to levels that would have astonished the vineyard managers and winemakers of only a few decades before.  Chemical analyses of soil conditions, DNA testing of varieties, computer databases, advanced weather forecasting, incredibly precise instrumentation, detailed records of conditions spanning sometimes more than a century all brought a precision and control to the art of the vineyard and winemaking that had never existed before.


Still, it was more an art than a science, even if the gap was narrowing.  No matter what the instrumentation and analysis said, a human still had to decide.  Would this plot of land grow good Chardonnay or not?  Should I plant Pinot Noir here?  Educated guesses were still guesses, no matter how they were arrived at, and luck could be as important as knowledge some times.


Now that may be changing.  In Europe, there is a project that may change much that is done today.  The European Space Agency, in co-operation with many of the companies and wine growers associations of Europe, has begun using satellite imagery to study the vineyards of the continent.  This is known as the Bacchus Project.


Using data gathered from spacecraft in conjunction with ground-based sensors to feed modern computer analysis with data, the aim of the Bacchus Project is to develop a complete vineyard inventory and management system.  Vine characteristics are being cross-indexed to all available data on the terroir conditions of the vineyard to make decisions on what to plant.  With complete records of data being gathered on climate history and imaging from orbit that can show which areas of a plot will retain moisture better due to the ground surface, or get more sun due to the lay of the ground, they are already talking of specifics.  In February 2005, the ESA announced they were close to a system that would allow satellite direction of a tractor through a global positioning system to plant a vine exactly where the computers said it should go. 


Will it be effective?  Probably.  Will it produce good wine?  Again, probably.  Will it make the vineyard manager and winemaker still more of a manager and technician instead of a craftsman and artist?  Yes. 


Will it rob a tiny bit of the mystique from making wine, and will that be a good thing?  I wonder.  What do you think?

 Last modified: August 07, 2007