This is what led Sébastien Payen and Thibaut Scholasch to set up Fruition Sciences. Both have PhDs, Payen in mechanical engineering and Scholasch in viticulture, and together they have created a system that tells vineyard farmers when and how much they need to irrigate the crop.
At the centre of the system is the sap-flow sensor, which is attached to one of the vines and works out how much water is moving through the plant.
Payen explains, “It’s actually quite a simple mechanism. You have a sleeve and inside that sleeve you have an electrical heater which warms up the sap. We then have temperature sensors on both sides of the heater, measuring the temperature of the sap before and after and we compute how much heat has been moved by the sap.”
We’ve had some resistance but most people recognize there is definitely an issue with irrigated vineyards
Through this measurement they can work out how much water the plant is accessing from the ground and when, if at all, it is necessary to irrigate. The data is then transmitted in real time over the internet and aggregated with other information such as climate data which the vineyard owner can access online.
The problem with many vineyards in the US is that they are over irrigating their crops. By reducing the plant’s water supply it actually accelerates maturation and makes for smaller but better quality grapes.
In France, there is hardly any irrigation except in some southern regions where it can get very dry. In California nearly every vineyard is irrigated which is why the majority of Fruition Science’s clients are based in the Golden State. They’ve shown the farmers that they don’t need to use nearly as much water as they’ve used in the past.
However, more traditional winegrowers think that Payen and Scholasch are being too scientific in their approach, believing that you only need to look at a vine to see if it’s properly hydrated.
Payen says, “People have told us we are taking the magic out of wine and the viticulture. We’ve had some resistance but I think most people recognize there is definitely an issue with irrigated vineyards.”
Temperature sensors on both sides of the heater, measure the temperature of the sap before and after
He continues, “We are entering a time where we need to save water more and more and the truth of the matter is, right now there is very little technology that allows you to really understand how much water the plants need. Sap flow is a way to do it in real time and in a continuous fashion.”
They have also proven, through science, that traditional techniques of vine observation can be inaccurate. Payen says, “What Thibaut (Scholasch) showed in his PhD is that vines show visual symptoms of water stress a lot earlier than the actual stress that could be dangerous for it. So when you are using visual clues to irrigate, you usually irrigate too much.”
In the five years since the business started they have only lost two clients which indicates their scientific approach to irrigation is working. Traditionalists may argue their process detracts from the mystery of winemaking, but the fact that Fruition Sciences is both optimizing grape growth and helping the environment by saving water can only be considered a good thing.