Electronics of Wine Making

My passion is wine.  I pay my bills working in the electronics industry.  I’ve  sold electronic components for nearly 40 years.  When my passion for wine coincides with my ability to  sell electronics, I get very excited.  I’m very excited.

It is said that  “we don’t know what we don’t know”.  And it is very true.  I didn’t know TJ Rodgers was the founder of Cypress Semiconductor.  I didn’t know how strongly he advocates for laissez-faire capitalism.  I didn’t know he was a winemaker and  wine enthusiast.  I didn’t know he is cited as one of the “100 People Who Changed Our World”.   After doing my research, he gets my vote.

Rodgers love of wine, especially Burgundy wine started when he was in graduate school.  His wine company is called Clos de la Tech.  It started in 1996 when Rodgers  planted 1 acre of Pinot Noir at his home in Woodside California.  Domaine De Docteur Rodgers is his own hand made 100 cases limited production wine.  Yes, he makes it himself.

As you might expect and guy who makes “electronic chips” for a living might need a little help when it comes to making wine.  So, he picked up the phone one day and called UC Davis.  The guy who took Rodgers call at UC Davis was Professor Boulton. It should be noted that Rodgers does have a degree in chemistry as well as electrical engineering.

At the time UC Davis was planning to build a new  34,000 square-foot teaching and research winery.  In 2009 plans were beginning to gel and as a way of saying thanks, Rodgers wanted to help the school out with a gift of $3.5 million for equipment and engineering.

But it wasn’t just a financial gift.  Rodgers sat down with the school and presented hand drawn sketches of a fermentation system  he had envisioned.  This would be a full integrated wireless wine fermentation network.  It will measure temperature, brix level and control pumps and report all readings to a central control station for 152 small fermentation tanks.  Remember this is a research center not a production house, however, this technology can be transferred to production size equipment.

Winemakers have known for a long time if they take control of the fermentation process the quality of the wine improves.  Two most important factors are; (1) Brix level and (2) fermentation temperature.  What is BRIX, it’s the sugar level in the must.  Add yeast and the sugar is converted to alcohol.  That process creates heat.  Like all living things yeasts have a comfort zone.  Too cold below 40 degree F they shut down, too hot above 100 degree F, they do wild and crazy things, none of them good for the flavor of wine.  

The type of wine you wish to product will have a optimum temperature range.  Formulas exists for predicting the temperature rise per Brix.  The temperature will rise 1 degree F for each degree of Brix and assumes 40% of the heat escapes to the surrounding atmosphere.  Other factors are size and shape of fermentation vessel, ambient air temperature and fermentation speed all enter into the equation. Allow the temperature to rise too fast the must will get too hot you’ll  get hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and a wine that has the taste of rotten eggs and the aroma cooked cabbage.  Too cool and you’ll risk contamination by organisms that can endure the lower temperatures like mold and bacteria. You can lose the whole vat, or your whole years production.

How it’s done now is by monitoring by the winemaker and staff.  Manually measuring the brix level and temp two to three times a day.  Using insulated containers with heating or cooling jackets or heat exchangers to heat or cool to contents.  Regular punch downs pushing the wine cap ( the grape skins floating on top of the wine).  The typical punch down is a worker with a long pole pushing the cap under the wine in the tank.  This exposes the worker to the by product of fermentation carbon monoxide and the wine to oxygen.  They also employ the technique of  what’s called a “pump over” where they pump the wine from one tank to another to allow the wine to cool or gain heat.  This process is time consuming and open to a number of human errors.  Any mistake here could mean damage or an end of life experience for the wine.

The Rodgers tank constantly monitors brix and temperature to the formula of the wine you wish to make.  Too hot a pump adds cool water to the cooling jacket, too cool, it adds  warm water to the jacket.  The tank also employs what looks like a French press for wine, where a press can be deployed to push the “cap” down into the must to lower the temperature.  This press also means the wine will have more uniform mixing for better color and flavor. The winemaker  can see this data in real time or program a warning to notify  them if the temperature gets out of the range the wine’s profile calls for. Once the profile has been perfected it can be automated.

I like how Rodgers approached the problem.  He decided how he wanted to make the wine and them developed the technology that would allow him to do it.  Rodgers says he studied a 1830’s manuscript on how to make wine and employed those principles in his design.  When asked if this takes the magic out of winemaking Rodgers says not at all, “it allows you to understand how the magic works”.  

Clos de la Tech has grown beyond the 1 acre lot in Rodgers backyard.  He added Domaine Valete the “snow vineyard”  set at 2,300 feet in the Santa Cruz mountains in 2002 and then a 80 acre site Domaine Lois Louise in production is 2004.  It is at the Domaine Lois Louise site they built their production Winery.

The winery is a  series of caves.  Three main caves and then crossing caves that connect them.  Each  cave is 30 feet wide, 30 feet high and 300 feet long. The winery system is built on gravity feed system.  Fermentation Cave is on the top.  The facility includes 56 of the Cypress integrated fermentation tanks.  It also includes a high tech wine press that was also designed by Rodgers.  Next cave is the Barrel cave.  They will be able to store two years of production in French oak barrels.  Final stop is the bottling cave.  Once again they will be able to store two years of production in the bottling cave.  All this sound very high tech.  The idea however, come from a 1888 winery  Seppeltsfield Estate in Australia.  No pumps or any mechanical force is needed.

There is one other modern miracle at Domaine Lois Louise.  The tractor.  The tractor they use at this vineyard has no motor, no steering wheel, no brakes and it has to contend with the slope of the vineyard and the close space density of the vines.  It’s pulled by cables on a x-y access.  Controlled with a joystick, driven like it was a video game.  Right now it’s the only one in the world and it was developed by Rodgers and Clemens agricultural equipment in Germany.

One last thing before we leave Clos de la Tech.  Each year at Cypress they vote for the “chip” of the year.  The device the employees at Cypress say was the best they produce for that year.  That chip is then wax stamped onto every bottle of Clos de la Tech.  It’s a honor as a chip designer to have your chip selected to go on the wine bottle.

If you are still with me reader, I know this was long and no pictures, but for me this was an absolute joy to write.  For me it was a huge “I got this” I understood the wine process and I understood the electronics.  It confirmed to me that I knew what the hell I was doing for sixteen years better than I even gave myself credit for.  I hope that joy came through in the story.

One last thought from TJ Rodgers that sums everything up; “If the wine doesn’t blow you away, then the technology doesn’t matter”.

To see and hear TJ Rodgers describe his wine and technology go to YouTube and type in Clos de la Tech.

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