Innovation and Wine

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smI used to back up onto an 80 gig hard drive, but when I went to do a backup last week, my computer rudely informed me that that hard drive was too small. After spending inordinate amounts of time trying to cut back on the number of files I was backing up, I gave up and went out and bought a new hard drive.

It was pretty amazing. My old hard drive was only a few years old, and was close to state of the art at the time. Yet its 80 gigs were blown away by the new model I bought last week, a whopping 500g’s. And for thirty dollars more, I could have bought a hard drive twice the size (which I thought about, but couldn’t see how I’d ever use those extra 500 g’s).

That’s not all. My old drive is, by comparison, a clunker. I would guess by size, it was about 10 times bigger than my new one, which could easily fit in my back pocket. My old one required a separate power cord be plugged into the wall; my new one runs off the USB port without external power.  And did I mention that my old drive cost twice as much as my new one?

Contrast my new hard drive with wine production. No one in the wine biz rushes out to buy a new crusher, or tank, or tractor, because this year’s model is light years in performance beyond a model purchased a few, or even ten, years ago. Today’s tank isn’t that different than tanks made a decade or two past. The same is true for most winery and vineyard equipment (for some reason, vineyard equipment seems to advance a little faster, but still nothing earth-shattering).

I think that much of this is attributable to the fact that we’re not in a field, such as computers, that benefits from the rapid advances in digital technology. So we’re never going to innovate at anything near the rate that hard drives do.

But I do think there’s more to it than that. Wine is enamored of tradition. “This is the way we’ve always done it” seems to apply more to winemaking than any other field I’ve ever been involved in. Any change to the “tried and true” is greeted with suspicion, if not downright hostility.

Take the subject of minimal pruning. That’s a pruning method widely used Down Under. It involves, basically, hedging the vine so that it has a fruiting area that is much larger than the normal fruiting zone of a standard spur-pruned vine (the most common method of pruning here in California). Yet this method, which is so widely used in Australia, is hardly used at all here. Now I can certainly understand that there are situations (i.e., low vigor, hillside vineyard) where minimal pruning wouldn’t be advisable, but there are certainly many situations (vigorous vineyards on valley floors), where minimal pruning seems like it should work real well. After all, the grapegrowing environment in Australia isn’t all that different from here. Why is a method that works so well in Australia completely shunned here? And minimal pruning has some very attractive features to it, low cost, high yield, and, in a vigorous vineyard, high quality, that should recommend its use here.

Yet I don’t know of anyone, other than me, that uses the method in California. I have to think someone else does, but, if so, I’m not aware of it. And why is its use so circumscribed? I have to think it’s largely a matter of, “That’s how we’ve always done it”. So a mind set is at least partly responsible for the lack of innovation in our industry.

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