Getting spacey for winemaking

Growing grapes for winemaking is an art as old as the Egyptian pyramids. But today, space-age technology is helping vineyard owners grow healthier plants and pick their grapes at the height of perfection. There are many aspects to successful grape growing, including geography, climate, insect control, moisture, sunlight and the perfect time to pick the berries. Growers are gaining an edge by using NASA techniques to better recognize ripeness in berries, choose the best areas to plant their vines and even escape hungry, vine-eating bugs.

In 1769, Franciscan Padre Junipero Serra introduced the European grape to southern California. By the 1800s, grapes were being grown in the Sonoma Valley area of central California, which more closely matched the climate of the best vineyards in Europe.

European growers have had centuries of experience in picking and pruning the crops. They understood the subtle variations from vine to vine, row to row, analyzing the vines by hand. Since each wine category requires specific methods of handling and growing, the “by-hand” method could take many years to learn, hence the benefit of space-age technologies.

Insects have added a devastating dimension to grape growing. Most of the Napa Valley wineries were struck by a root louse known as phylloxera, causing the worst insect epidemic in their 40-year wine-growing history. The aphid-type insect kills vines by feeding on the roots, leaving the plants open to fungal infections that would kill them in two or three growing seasons.

NASA Ames Research Center collaborated with industry and university partners to find ways to predict the devastation of crops. Catchy names like CRUSH (Canopy Remote sensing for Uniformly Segmented Harvest) and GRAPES (Grapevine Remote sensing Analysis of Phylloxera Early Stress) were projects that used remote sensing devices to test the “vigor” (qualities and ripeness of the berries), and detecting the spread of phylloxera infestation.

Field and aircraft remote-sensing data collected from California’s Napa Valley during the CRUSH test showed that although the plant still appeared healthy, the phylloxera were busily munching away on vine roots underground. With this valuable information, vineyard owners are now able to make better decisions about where to replant their crops while the infested areas are treated.

Large wine companies like E&J Gallo and Mondavi are using NASA-based technology to design their fields to cultivate the perfect wine grape for the area. A project known as VINTAGE (Viticultural Integration of NASA Technologies for Assessment of the Grapevine Environment) is using NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) for crop management.

Vineyard managers are also responsible for determining the perfect time to pick grapes. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, along with the Maryland-based Brimrose company, developed a device that uses spectrometry for testing the grape for harvesting. A spectrometer was used in deep space to separate the colors of light given off by an object.

The tool, now called the Luminar 5030, is a miniaturized version of space hardware that’s readily adaptable to sensing grape ripeness. The device allows wine growers to analyze the grapes in their own fields to determine the optimal time for harvest.

America’s wine industry has benefited from NASA technology, helping grape growers cultivate a quality product with abundant harvests.


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