With the concurrence of harvest and fire season, winemakers often find themselves flummoxed, consumed by stress. But can technology temper winemakers’ frayed nerves?
It appears so. Now, winemakers can run fermentations from an iPad or cellphone should they have to evacuate. Those making wine in underground caves can take refuge by closing the portal door and sealing themselves off from smoke and fire.
Jesse Katz, the vintner/winemaker of Healdsburg’s Aperture Cellars, and Chris Phelps, senior associate winemaker of Rutherford’s Inglenook, shared their high-tech methods, shedding light on how technology gives them a sense of control when they’re faced with the caprices of climate change — the drought, high winds and fires.
Harvest, Katz said, used to be his favorite time of year. But fire, COVID-19 and labor shortages have put an end what the season once meant — communing with nature.
“Harvest has become so stressful that I have started to dread it,” he said. “But my winery gives me an extra level of confidence.”
Aperture Cellars, founded in 2019, is a metal building of 24,000 square feet surrounded by 32 acres of vines. The winery, with its flagship Bordeaux varietals, has several features to help Katz weather the unpredictable nature of the season.
The winery has a generator in case of power outages and two 60,000-gallon holding tanks of water, as backup for irrigation, fire suppression and the wine tasting room.It also has a refrigerated storage room kept at 45 degrees that can preserve 20 tons of fruit for several days, should a fire quicken the pace of picking.
But what gives Katz the most relief is that he has 33 fermentation tanks, each with its own pump and computer. That allows him to monitor and control each remotely.
“On Oct. 23 of 2019, the Kincaid Fire started just north of us,” Katz said. “Soon after, we were told we had to evacuate the entire winery, and we weren’t certain when we were going to be able to get back in. Thankfully, we were able to turn on our generator, get the team out safely and continue to run our pump overs and monitor our fermentation temperatures from my dad’s apartment in San Francisco.”
The winery, Katz said, lets him minimize the risks he had previously by giving him control over many more factors.
“We also have an in-house laboratory to make faster decisions,” he said. “This all helps with the stress, but stress levels are still high.”
Over at Inglenook this harvest, the winery will process its fruit in its new underground cave facility, a safe haven should a fire flare up.
“Our new wine cave is constructed from ignition-resistant materials, and it’s certainly reassuring to know it’s protected from the threat of fire,” Phelps said.
The cave is also protected from smoke.
“It’s equipped with a powerful ventilation system,” Phelps said. “In the unlikely event that wildfire smoke was able to penetrate the cave, the smoke could easily be evacuated. … While we don’t anticipate the intrusion of smoke into the winery cave, we are well-equipped to deal with any situation.”
If the cellar workers have to evacuate, all electrical equipment is linked to a backup generator, Phelps said. And each of the cave’s fermentation tanks can be operated remotely, around the clock, with sophisticated hardware and software.
“Fermentation and storage of the wines can be micromanaged from a phone or PC,” he said. “We’re using the most cutting-edge technology to link with the controls on each of the tanks.”
In addition to Rubicon, its proprietary blend of red Bordeaux varieties, Inglenook is known for its cabernet sauvignon.
Francis Ford Coppola, the vintner of Inglenook and Academy Award-winning director, said the new cave gives the winery “unprecedented control” with the wines it makes because it’s equipped with 120 fermentation tanks, one for each parcel within its contiguous 235 acres of Rutherford vineyards.
“Conditions outside the cave,” Phelps said, “will not impact the quality of the wines being produced.”
You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at email@example.com or 707-521-5310.