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Grape Growing Going High-Tech

September 01, 2002|MELINDA FULMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENFIELD, Calif. — A windsock flaps in the breeze just above Scheid Vineyards Inc.'s Chardonnay vines. Thirty feet away, a digital camera mounted on a pole turns suddenly and snaps its picture, transmitting it to the grape grower's Web site for its winery clients.

There, wineries that have contracts for Scheid's grapes can check out the weather, look at satellite maps of their block of vines and examine sugar and pH readings and soil analyses to decide the exact time that their crop should be harvested.

This electronic baby-sitting is custom farming at its most high-tech and an example of how far grape growers are going these days to hold on to their winery customers at a time when grapes are flooding the market.

Contract grape growers such as Salinas-based Scheid, which farms 6,000 acres in Monterey County, usually fare better than Central Valley growers who sell on the open market. Growers under contract can set prices over a longer period.

But even contract growers are not immune from this year's glut. Contracts with many growers are being renegotiated at lower prices and for less volume in coming years. After years of keeping winemakers at arm's length, growers are trying to involve them in more decisions about caretaking and harvesting.

"The more they know, the happier they feel," said Scott Scheid, president of Scheid Vineyards. "Our customers buy grapes all over the coast. They have a lot to keep track of. We want them to know more about our grapes than anybody's."

Grapes are the biggest cost in the production of luxury wines, so winemakers are monitoring grapes more closely at every step of the growing process.

"If you look at the weather forecast and you know it's going to rain and your brix [grape sugar content] is close to target I'll call

Scheid, whose shares trade on Nasdaq, is the first grower to offer this Web-based grape information system to its winery clients, which include Geyser Peak, Niebaum-Coppola and Blackstone. The company earned $2.5 million in fiscal 2001 on sales of $21.7 million, a 25% increase from the year before.

The winery also sends daily e-mails with readings that show how the grapes are maturing.

Still, two months after its launch, the technology, called VitWatch, is far from perfect. The camera in the Greenfield vineyard is the only one in use. The picture quality isn't that good, and without a high-speed Web connection, streaming video is choppy.

But it's a start. And in the weeks ahead, the company plans to move a camera from vineyard to vineyard to allow winemakers to see their grapes being harvested.

"I think it's just so cool," Smith said. "The downside is I find myself sitting there going through all of these [stats and pictures] and end up wasting a lot of time on the computer."

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