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Is This What George Jetson Will Drink?

by David on March 16, 2007

Wow! This is pretty interesting stuff. A bunch of industry experts got together to collectively take a peek at what the winery of the future will look like and there’s good news and bad news as far as I can tell.

The good news is that they foresee sustainable agriculture across the board. Organic and sustainable farming are positively mainstream and where biodynamics used to be an “out there” concept, now it seems that hardly a week goes by without hearing about more wineries jumping on the band wagon. That’s a very good thing for our kids and grandkids.

They also predict that we’ll be using varieties that are unfamiliar to us now mainly for the purpose of avoiding pest and disease problems. Unless we’re projecting waaay forward, I think they misjudge human nature. One thing I know for sure is that we humans prefer what we’re accustomed to and we’ve been loving the same old grape varieties for centuries. It’s going to take generations to wean people off of their beloved Cabernet and Chardonnay in favor of new flavor profiles.

Oddly enough, they didn’t factor in global warming, or the topic didn’t make its way into this article. I keep wondering if Napa Valley is destined to be the next Fresno, the “raisin capital of the world” and if the Willamette Valley will be the next hotbed (so to speak) for Cabernet? Perhaps they see these new varieties as the way to adapt.

Barrels may go on the chopping block. One speaker commented that she sees “…many mid-sized wineries are already on the path away from oak barrels, and believes that many more will be soon.” Recently, I’ve spoken in depth with two of the barrel brokers we work with at Goosecross in preparation for a podcast and neither of them sees barrel alternatives as a threat to the barrel industry. Both of them believe that the best producers will always prefer the effect of actual barrel aging as opposed to micro-ox in combination with oak chips or some other alternative. Fooling themselves? Who can say? How far in the future are we looking?

The bad news, in my view, is that they also predict that something so primitive as walking the vineyard is likely to go by the wayside. A highly respected viticulturist predicted that “The main tasks will be mechanized and controlled via computer interface and global positioning systems (GPS). Growing conditions will be closely monitored by aerial and surface observation using geographic information systems (GIS).”

The upside? When they refer to “greater precision” in cultural practices, I assume they mean things like monitoring irrigation and nutritional needs and making decisions on shoot, cluster or leaf thinning. It’s a comfort, at least, to know that they still plan to use grapes. ;-)

The downside? Maybe I’m just a sentimentalist but I can’t help wondering what else is lost when we lose the human element? Can read-outs on a monitor truly replace or even surpass the abilities of humans to observe and make judgments based on experience, instinct and a grower’s intimate knowledge of his own vineyard? I’m all for high-tech plus human observation, but I don’t know about trusting a bunch of monitors completely. More efficient? Yes. Better results? Doubt it.

And it appears that the future is now when you talk about using metrics to model your wine after another wine that got a 99 from Parker. Will that become routine in the future? And will all the wines kinda taste the same?

I’m just having a little trouble, here, imagining Chateau Margaux making wine out of some crazy hybrid and flavoring it with oak chips (or who knows what???).

Well, it could be that my reaction is the typically human fear of change. Maybe, but I think I’ll probably be 6 feet under by the time any of these predictions come to pass. I think I’m more protective of the basic thing that appeals to so many of us about wine. It’s a product of the earth and the human senses. If the sensuality of the process is removed will the charm of the beverage be lost too?

At a time when life is getting more and more impersonal, it seems to me that people are getting increasingly hungry for authenticity and the personal touch – that sense of warmth that can only come through human interaction as opposed to digital, hit-and-run communication. IM-ing your sweetheart a dozen times a day is fine, but it can’t begin to replace the feeling of contentment and pleasure you feel when you curl up on the couch together and share a little wine and conversation.

So, at the risk of coming off like a Luddite once again, I pose the question: If you digitize and analyze and take the humanity out of it will we still crave what remains? Will it still inspire poets to wax eloquent about it? Will George Jetson be reduced to drinking something that’s merely grape juice with a kick?

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