Twenty years ago, when the hottest thing in cell phones flipped, I wrote about a future with vineyard robots, designer yeast, and revolutionary barrels. Predicting technology is a tricky thing. We still don't have flying cars, and one of the big minds of our time recently predicted that we never will (cars falling out of the sky being bad). On the other hand, few would have guessed at how far the cell phone has come.
Robot Vineyard Workers
The only so slightly derivatively named Wall-ye robot is available for purchase today. It is an autonomous lawn mower, hardly earth shattering in a day of ubiquitous robotic vacuum cleaners, but it also does something that only well trained humans could do before: It will prune your vines, no small feat.
It will also sample the soil and mark the condition of each vine. These were the key factors I was looking for back when, and this is a good start. We haven't quite reached the point I am looking forward to, where each vine will be maintained, autonomously, in accordance with its own specific needs. Non destructive examination of individual berries or leaves will help determine exactly what those needs are. The ultimate microclimate could become a single vine, or even a single cluster.
A recent study has reinforced for me the importance of the microbiology in the soil. Besides administering to the plant, my future robot would ensure that the soil has exactly the right population to ensure the desired characteristics in the resulting wine. Every controllable aspect would be controlled, and the winemaker could dial in her own exacting vision of the wine. Great wine is made from great grapes. Will perfect wine someday be possible?
The downside would be a world of identical wines. Each dialing in the same characteristics, and so nullifying the concept of terroir or stylistic differences. A quick look around at today's wine would give reason to fear this possible future, but in my more utopian vision the opposite would be true. Expressions of wine we can't begin to imagine today could become possible. Especially with the technology that is emerging for what happens after the vineyard.
My vision of yeasts designed to enhance specific characters in wine has been slow in coming to fruition. There have been some amazing breakthroughs, like the Renaissance Yeast which was produced through traditional breeding methods to reduce the formation of hydrogen sulfide in wine, but direct gene manipulation has been a problem.
Just last month researchers at the University of Illinois developed a "genome slicer" that solves one of the major hurdles in designing future strains of yeast. The press latched on to the potential for making wines that do not give you a hangover or could have greater heath benefits through the production of more resveratrol or other desired components of wine. These are just a tiny glimpse of what is possible.
Control over the microbiology of the fermenting must could again allow the winemaker to dial in specific flavors, painting a flavor palate as it were. Multiple types of yeast could be used, each giving way to the next generation as their part of the job is done. With thousands of possible permutations no two wines would ever have to be alike. Wineries could even have their own proprietary yeast to protect their brands.
My vision of barrels being designed by computers to control curing and charring has long since come to pass. Barrel alternatives, once only the purview of the cheapest or home made wines, are too ubiquitous. What I didn't see coming is this potential game changer.
A company by the name of Modern Cooperage has introduced a new take on barrel aging. A stainless steel barrel is fitted with clips that can hold up to twenty oak staves of your choice. Allowing you to mix and match toast and types of oak. You can add just as much of your desired oak flavor as you wish. The system also allows for stirring lees and oxygenating your wine.
The barrel itself is anachronistic in this day and age. It hails from a time when merchandise was shipped by sail. The shape of the barrel made it easy for a stevedore to manhandle it aboard ship and store it on a rack. Ironically it was the end of the sailing ships that led to the popularity of oak aging wine. Once the oak didn't go to making Man-of-Wars it was available for the betterment of wine.
Barrels are expensive, take a great deal of oak, offer limited control of characteristics, and worst of all, only last a few years. It is no wonder that so many have been trying to find decent alternatives. Most attempts have been compromises at best, so I have yet to taste a wine that has matched, let alone improved on classic oak aging, but there is more and more incentive to find one. Perhaps Modern Cooperage or the next big thing will be the answer.
The Future of the Future
For a segment of the wine making, and the wine loving population, technology is an anathema. They prefer to reach back in time for techniques and flavors that eschew the advances since the days of Pasteur. When the wine is good I applaud them, when it is not, I call them out on it. What counts is the wine, not how it is made.
For those who look forward, rather than back, for solutions, the potential is awe inspiring. Wines of the future can taste exactly like the winemaker wants them to. Sustainability will no longer be a watch word, but simply a by product of ultra-precise agriculture. Wine will be healthier, and more consistent than ever. It is a future that given man's inherent greed could go askew, but I think not. I think ultimately that the consumer will benefit and so too shall we all.
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