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State of the Art after 6,000 Years

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Posted: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 11:16 am

Within 3 weeks, we've seen mankind's winemaking experience expand forward and backward thousands of years.

Hans Barnard of UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archeology and his team uncovered the world's oldest winery in Armenia.

In a "sprawling cave system" near the border of Iran were found a wine press, clay pots, vats with wine residue, a small cup and remnants of grape stems and seeds, all dating back 6,000 years to the Copper Age.

Examination of grape pieces showed them to be of the same species as our most popular modern-day varieties (Vitis vinifera), such as Chardonnay and Merlot.

Using good old foot-stomping to crush grapes for fermentation, this pre-Stainless-Steel-Age facility may have produced an unfiltered Merlot not that different than current bottlings made in the same way, but with cleaner equipment.

Speaking of stainless steel, there was plenty on display at last Friday's Grand Opening of the U. C. Davis Teaching and Research Winery.

I was fortunate to be in a crowd of several hundred respected wine industry members and reporters who toured the world's newest and most advanced winery - in sharp contrast to the moldy, dark, concrete "1938 vintage model" winery where many great winemakers got their start.

The 12,500-square-foot winery is part of an entirely new complex on the south side of campus, collectively named the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, in recognition of a generous personal gift of $25 million made by Robert Mondavi.

The additional $20 million to build the winery and adjacent building was raised completely through private donations without any State or Federal taxpayer funds.

Though not available to wineries for perhaps years, the most exciting feature for me - and what drew celebrity winemakers like bees to honey - was 152 barrel-sized gleaming stainless steel cylinders up-ended on wheels like a night janitor's movable trashcan. Named "Rogers Fermentors" after T.J. Rogers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor who invented and donated $1.003 million worth of them, each self-contained mini fermentation tank will be filled with grapes to be made into wine.

Unlike the tanks you see in Lodi wineries that require a cellar rat to be hired to fiddle with them multiple times daily during crush, these new fermenters dramatically reduce labor costs.

With conventional tanks workers have to open a tap to take a sample of the fermenting wine and use an old-fashioned floating glass device to figure how much sugar is left to ferment, measured in degrees "Brix." The new tanks have Brix meters built in that will collect sugar readings automatically every 5 minutes and post the results wirelessly to a database that can instantly graph the results.

Conventional tanks also require a worker to set up a hose and pump to spray juice over floating grape skins to keep them from drying out, whereas the Rogers Fermentors each have a built-in pump that generates a programmable oscillating spray.

These super-fancy tanks also have special computer-controlled valves to draw hot or cold water as necessary to maintain the grapes at the perfect temperature.

And that's not all: the carbon dioxide produced moves through clear tubing attached to each tank so this potentially lethal gas can be vented through exterior walls.

I often tell people that two winemakers given a share of grapes from the same original batch are unavoidably going to make two different wines. So the advantage to all this automation is that U.C. Davis researchers will now be able to make two batches that are, indeed, identical, or - more importantly - intentionally differing by only one variable, potentially speeding new discoveries in vine growing and winemaking dramatically.

And I didn't even mention the rainwater-flushed toilets, self-generated solar power, and the Budweiser Clydesdales.