Rathfinny Wine Estate

Intelligent Vineyards

As part of my job I spend a lot of time collecting, analysing and interpreting data from the vineyard with the aim of building a clear representation of the Estate each season and comparatively, year on year. I spoke briefly in my previous blog about the future of data driven decision making especially on a site as big as ours, so after visiting Fruit Focus at NIAB EMR where this was discussed, I thought some more about the importance of technology and how we can use it to improve our practices. Part of this encompasses the evolution of data analytics in the vineyard. Mainly, machine learning, satellite image processing and wireless sensor networks. Together these tools can help make strategic decisions which work to improve efficiency and ultimately, the consumer experience. 

For us, each vine in the ground is a long-term investment and although they are all derived from the same parent material, they are individual – just like you and me! In my head the Estate is like a Georges Seurat painting with each vine representing a distinct mark of paint. Because everything is so closely related, each dataset fits very intricately together which means your perspective changes depending on the angle you are viewing it from or the questions you’re asking it. Some areas are light, some are dark. Some aspects are blurry whilst others are clear. There are different shapes, textures and gradients of colour, but they are all part of the same image. Whilst Seurat used pointillism to differentiate landscapes, people and facial features we use each data point to understand vine performance, fruit quality and the wine that will eventually make its way to your glass. 

(Image credit: Agrii & Google Earth)

The key factor here is the relay of information and the time it takes not only to collect, but process and recognise what it means therefore, what actions can be taken as a result. While retrospective reporting is valuable, real-time information processing is extremely powerful but equally difficult to come by without lots of ground truthing or specialist software. This is where technology like wireless sensor networks and satellite imagery comes into play. We can use tools like these to spy on our vines and the conditions in which they are growing in real-time, looking for differences in vigour as well as potential indicators of stress and disease. Below you can see an example of a satellite image taken last week looking at chlorophyll concentration. We can overlay this with data we’ve collected in the vineyard and our knowledge about the site to help us understand the current state of our vines.

Even with these kinds of advances, what I find truly unique about viticulture is that it is as reliant on technological and scientific innovation as it is on the hard work of the people who dedicate their careers to it. They say no one knows a vineyard better than the people who work there and when it comes down to it, satellite images are only pictures and a thermometer just measures temperature. They can’t tell you what to do or how to think, just as a painting can’t tell you how to feel. It is your knowledge and life experience that will do this. Although artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomous vehicles will have a huge impact on our industry, wine can be so evocative of the spirit of those who made it, the year it was made and the place it came from that I believe the elimination of this would be a great loss. Instead, what I find inspiring is the ability to utilise technology as a way to enhance and support the human element rather than replace it.

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