by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
Three things came together this last week in a way that, no doubt, was coincidental, but in an eerie sort of way left me “shaking my head”.
First, I just got through reading Richard Clarke’s Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It. I can only describe the specter of Cyber War as chilling. To summarize a fairly long book: America is the most vulnerable nation in the world to an attack by hackers seeking to disrupt or destroy many of our most critical institutions. The security we have in place to defend against such an attack is woefully inadequate—hackers who attempt to infiltrate the computer systems of many American industries find they can do it with ease. The only thing that kept them from wreaking havoc was their decision not to. A foreign attacker, obviously, would be a whole different can of words. And, finally, what are we doing about this dire state of affairs? Nothing. Between those that resist any effort to “regulate” industry, and those concerned with the potential “privacy” concerns of the government getting involved in prescribing minimal levels of security, the government is at gridlock.
Shortly after I finished this book, two news stories hit the wires. First, Congress rejected an effort to enact a relatively weak cyber security bill. Perhaps that it came somewhat close to passing the Senate is some cause for optimism that going forward things will change for the better, but I’m not banking on it.
The second story was the massive power outage in India. Basically, a tenth of the world’s population had to get by without power. This outage seems to result from India’s fairly primitive power grid. But much the same thing could occur here through a cyber-compromised power grid.
Our power grids are, from generation plants to switching stations to overall balancing of the power going into and out of the grid, controlled by software. That’s hardly surprising, and in and of itself hardly a cause for concern. But that software is largely tied to the Internet, meaning that hackers can obtain access to it without great difficulty. Add to that the fact that the security measures that should be protecting that software are largely non-existent. And add to that the fact that the power grid is a finely tuned instrument that can be easily thrown off kilter if everything isn’t precisely managed.
So I got to thinking, what would be the effect on the wine industry in the event that a cyber attack brought down the power grid? There’s a lot more damage that cyber attacks against different institutions (government, financial, transportation, etc.) could inflict on the wine business, but the electric grid, both because it’s so vulnerable, and the effects could be so calamitous, is worthy of special note.
So let’s suppose that someone is able to bring down the power grid for the western states for four or five days. That would certainly be bad for the wine industry (not to mention everyone else), but just how bad?
A starting point would be to indentify where we use electricity. The answer is “everywhere”. Two obvious examples are the pumps that irrigate our fields, and the cooling that is so necessary for our wineries. Certainly, when the outage occurs would matter a great deal. Worse case scenario would be during harvest and fermentation. I can’t think of anything worse than grapes sitting on the crush pad without any electricity to run the crusher/destemmer, presses, and pumps that are required to get the grapes converted into must and moved to tank. Almost as bad would be an outage that hit while the grapes were fermenting. Without any way to cool down the fermentation, fermentation temperatures would take off. For many wines this would be disastrous.
Or suppose it’s time to press off, only the presses have no power, and the pumps to get the must to the press won’t work. Probably a few days delay wouldn’t be the end of the world, but at some point the effect is going to be significant. Of course, the fact that you can’t move the wine means there’s no place for new grapes to come to, so they have to wait in the field until the outage is over. Which I guess would be somewhat okay, since the trucks, tractors, etc. that would be needed to harvest the grapes would have no way to function (the gasoline pumps that fill their tanks are electrically powered).
Even if it weren’t harvest time, the effect could be devastating. If it occurred during a heat wave, the cooling upon which we depend would be unavailable. Again, four or five days without cooling probably wouldn’t be devastating, at least most times of the year, and for most wines, but it wouldn’t be a good thing either.
Other things would be affected, but would not be nearly as calamitous. We depend on electricity to power our irrigation systems. But barring a stroke of unusually bad luck, five days without irrigation shouldn’t be a major problem. If our tractors were out of gasoline, and so unable to spray for 5 days, the effect probably wouldn’t be disastrous, though certainly it would be disruptive.
If your wine is in a refrigerated freight car that’s put out of service during the outage, and if it’s the middle of August, your wine could be cooked. But this is probably a fairly small part of your production, so it’s bearable.
Now add to the effect of loss of the power grid all the other potential disruptions. Suppose the financial system is compromised, so that you can’t access your money to pay your bills? The list goes on and on. In the end, we’d survive, find ways to adapt to the crisis. But it wouldn’t be a pretty picture.
And, I would have to say, the wine business is far less vulnerable to a cyber attack than many other industries.
I would hope we wake up and take some steps to mitigate the effects of a cyber attack. But at this point, it seems like nothing is going to really happen until we get a wake-up call in the worst way possible.