How do they do IT? Vintage IT

Present at our most catalytic events, revered by many of the world’s religious orders, wine has buttered the tongues of warlords and dictators. Roman Caesars have gorged on it, medieval poets have sung about it and chemists have cured ailments with what was once an elixir, now a treasured beverage. And IT is changing the future flavour.

Australia’s place in the history of winemaking — or vinification — is an epilogue to an 8000-year chronology which began in ancient Iran, was transformed at the hands of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and spread through trade and the spoils of war. Australia is considered ‘new world’ in terms of wine manufacture, and our vinification techniques are on the bleeding-edge of technological advancement. The veins of many of our master wine makers run with the blood of experienced European vintners, but their techniques are worlds apart.

Since the first local wines were produced in 1820 after 40 years of failed imported South African crops, Australia has risen to become the world’s fourth-largest exporter, worth $2.3 billion last year. We ship Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling to name a few — some 764 million litres in 2009. Our sacred drop recently bumped ‘old world’-producing nations from the top of wine lists in the UK and across Europe. And, like ice to Inuits, we even sell our wine to France, Italy and Spain. It’s that good, so says our humble industry.

Wine exports tipped $2.3 billion last year, a rise of 9 per cent, following another wine glut in 2005 triggered calls for growers to pull out their vines. Bulk wines are on the up to the tune of an extra 119 million litres, but they are far from overtaking bottled wine exports, and still less than the 40 per cent market share of bottled reds. Our Shiraz is in highest demand by international palettes, followed by Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

From the vine

It’s the harvest season for winemakers in the Southern Hemisphere. Some smaller Australian vineyards will pick the grapes by hand, which has more to do with particular vintage requirements than in homage to old world techniques. The larger winemakers will employ software and machine technology to identify the best and ripest rachis (the stem which contains the grapes), and will use integrated mapping to locate the patchwork of varietals hidden across the vineyards. Technology is now so integral to wine production that without it, many of our favourite drops from remote regions would disappear.

Take the Wynns vineyard, nestled in the cool clime of Coonawarra, on South Australia’s Limestone Coast. The landscape looks deceptively flat to the eye, and until about 10 years ago it was assumed to be as such. Enter precision viticulture: Parent company Foster's can now identify subtleties in environmental conditions across all its vineyards that can make the difference between a $100 bottle of red, and a $20 offering.

An $80 drop won’t come from mixing them, however, so Foster's teamed-up with the CSIRO to develop a military-grade system for each of its vineyards covering a total of 9000 hectares, to identify variances in light, moisture and soil type to determine the best location for a given varietal. An aerial monitoring system records the slightest variances in the light spectrum over the vineyard area, which together with advanced automated telemetric watering systems, can produce the optimal growth for a given wine variety.

“Technology has a huge role to play,” says Foster's Australia and New Zealand director of wine production, Dr Stuart McNab. “We align spectrum which just cannot be detected by eye, and soil conditions to yield… it means that, through technology, we can manage and enhance our vine growth.”

The supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) probes, also known as programmable logic controllers, detect variances in moisture and soil chemistry, which in turn triggers watering drip systems and tells viticulturalists which specific mulches and fertilisers to apply to targeted vines. “It means we get that $100 bottle, and that $50 bottle — smart use of technology means better wines, and uniformed flavour, which means more money,” says McNab.

Similar technology is at play over at De Bortoli. It has extensive SCADA networks throughout its three vineyards in the NSW Riverina and Hunter Valley, and in the Victorian Yarra Glen region. The system monitors soil conditions for moisture and chemical composition. The information is passed onto its chief viticulturalists and winemakers who then make knowledge-based decisions on whether, for example, watering systems should be switched on in accordance with weather patterns and disease control.

“The winemakers have the experience which is difficult to automate: That is, they make informed decisions, based on the data feeds that the technology supplies them with,” says De Bortoli IT manager, Bill Robertson. “Simple cause-and-effect systems, like those for temperature control, can be automated, but in other circumstances you want the winemakers and viticulturalists to make the final call.”

De Bortoli also uses a robotic sampler which trundles through vineyard and measures the grape acidity and baume — or sugar — levels. The information is fed via a new module into an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system where it is used to plan vintages the laboratory.

The online, hosted VineAccess database feeds information from 300 growers into De Bortoli’s custom ERP system, including information on grape colour, maturity and the use of sprays. The data is matched against the winery’s own viticulture data to determine a precise picking date, which is entered into a scheduling system.

You’ll find a Geographic Information System (GIS) in almost every large vineyard. De Bortoli uses integrated mapping systems and GPS coordinates to establish vineyard boundaries, the location of specific varietals and their specific environmental conditions. The winery has saved thousands on GIS licensing and terabytes of storage by shunning commercial mapping tools for free and open-source alternatives such as Google Maps. Even its module, which integrates the size, yield, water usage and maturity of surrounding vineyards into the GIS, was developed free of charge by a local university intern. It’s a case-in-point for the benefits of open source and internship that Robertson says IT managers across all industries should consider.

“It seems that many industries are surprisingly conservative adopters of technology while the new world wineries have historically been quite open...having an open IT architecture helps.”

Mapping technology helps guide Foster's’ grape harvesters, and tell drivers what varietal sector they are in.

“We draw up a game plan, with each sector divided into… batches of grapes aligned to quality, and the harvester can pin-point the location pf the quality variations as it drives along,” says McNab. The harvester also has a radio link with the collection bins that ensures the grapes destined for the $100 wine are not mixed with anything else. And the mapping system can be streamed to Foster's’ fleet of BlackBerry smartphones to ensure viticulturalists and winemakers are up to date.

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To the winery

Technology is critical in the wine laboratory. In the same way that industrial and manufacturing plants use SCADA networks, winemakers control temperature, acidity and yeast growth with the highest precision. Head winemaker at Harmans Ridge Estate, Allan Waters, uses customised technology controls for each stage of the vinification process. The Margaret River winery produces wines for Howling Wolves and Mootown, and logs and uploads the entire production process for each grape, including winemaker cellar notes, into a central database.

You won’t see Waters, or many Australian winemakers stomping grapes underfoot. Today, the entire fermentation process is handled by a mix of man and machine, where head winemakers use SCADA systems to monitor and control fermentation conditions and the growth and termination of yeast. Temperature profiles are custom designed for each vintage, resulting in richer reds and crisper whites. A hotter fermentation extracts more tannins in reds, while cooler temperatures help remove skins and seeds in whites wines.

In the Wolf Blass winery in the Barossa Valley, senior winemaker, Matt O'Leary, says the SCADA systems monitor many of its 2300 wine tanks — with some holding up to 700,000 litres.

O’Leary says every note "from grape to glass" is captured in its database management system, which Wolf Blass will soon replace with a custom-built module. Before the 45 tonnes of fruit enters the winery, it is checked for imperfections, baume and acid levels, which are documented and compared against records from the viticulturalists and laboratory technicians.

“The technology creates a line in the sand between the grape and the wine," says O'Leary.

Into the bottle

Wineries are some of the most vertically integrated organisations in the world, and modern supply chain management systems simply don’t cut it. The companies own the process from growing the grape, to harvesting, cartage, crushing, processing, bottling, warehousing, and shipping. Most large wineries even control customer sales through their cellar doors.

“It is a fundamental problem for wineries because they are effectively their own supplier,” says Robertson. “This is not understood by traditional ERPs which assume that you can place an order if stocks run out — but it is too late to do that after vintage or harvest”. Robertson says multi-billion dollar oil companies would have supply-chain systems that are less complicated than those used in some wineries.

So how do wineries establish an automated system that handles sapling to sale? They do it themselves.

In part, at least. Robertson has purpose-built custom ERP demand modules, which have the benefit of being tailored exactly to the company’s needs. The system can produce accurate demand forecasts and vintage lineage because is heavily integrated into data feeds from the telemetry, SCADA, and Vine Access viticulture systems. The 150 million litres of stored wine from each four-month harvest helps buffer supplies, too.

“With the long lead times required to establish a vineyard and grow the required grapes, wineries often must make decisions several years in advance when planning to market new wine varieties or styles,” says Robertson. “I think the nature of the wine industry encourages a long range and strategic mindset [which] is very useful for IT given the resources and time required to implement large IT projects.”

The Wolf Blass bottling and warehousing facility in the South Australia's Barossa Valley could be SkyNet from the Terminator series, albeit without the annihilative tendencies. The machines in this $115 million facility run everything. They automatically receive, ship, sort, shrink-wrap and store pallets, leaving humans to load and offload trucks, and perform occasional fault-checking. The facility churns out 15 million wine cases a year, of which about 85 per cent are consigned to export, and contains about 23,000 pallets over a 44,000 square metre area.

Once customers place orders in the ERP system, the system ships off the required stock. Come nightfall, the Automated Storage and Retrieval System doesn’t sleep, but ‘defragments’ itself and sorts the palettes into a more logical stacking order.

The Lindemans Karadoc warehouse is run by autonomous forklifts which use laser-guidance systems to locate and move stock without human help. The robots can even replace their own batteries when power runs low. A wireless network directs machines to retrieve and sort pallets, and a tightly-integrated supply chain management system costs and accounts for all stock, from the grape, to vintage, to sale.

The art of winemaking won't leave its traditions behind anytime soon. Drinkers can thank the experience of winemakers and their dedication and precision for our world-renowned products. Technology compensates for the industry's small workforce and allows the masters to produce more great wine. And for that, we can all be thankful.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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