When husband-and-wife team Paul Sloan and Kathryn McGrath-Sloan decided to start their own viticulture business in 1998, their vision was based on the philosophy that small grape vines, densely planted, would produce higher-quality, more flavorful wine.
The small vines philosophy was so integral to the Sloan’s mission that the couple incorporated the concept right into the company name – Small Vines Viticulture.
“A vine that has fewer clusters to ripen produces grapes with more intensity of flavor,” explains Paul Sloan. “All of the fruit from our vineyards is destined for luxury wines, and most of these sites are commanding 100x the bottle price per ton. It’s all about the fruit, and small vines do in fact make better wines.”
Today, Small Vines farms its own vineyards, the majority of which lie along Russian River and in the Sonoma Coast appellations in California’s Sonoma County. Small Vines also offers a variety of vineyard management and development services to landowners in Sonoma County. These services include site evaluation, preparation, planting, and farming.
To yield the highest quality fruit, Small Vines relies on a broad range of tools and technologies, including automated weather tracking equipment. “Having localized weather tracking devices on our ranches really helps us make better decisions, from initial site evaluation to harvesting,” explains Sloan. “It’s especially important in situations where a client is interested in a vineyard site located in an area where little is known about the climate for grape growing.” Small Vines uses a combination of HOBO® Data Loggers and Micro Stations from Onset for tracking air temperature and wind speed & direction.
“With temperature, we’re primarily interested in finding out total degree days and when frost occurs in the spring and fall, so we can understand if frost protection is needed before developing a site,” explains Sloan. “Since the data loggers are very portable, we can take temperature readings at different points up the hill during the course of the year and find out where the frost line ends.” Sloan adds that Small Vines focuses on a very old European style of farming based on 4-foot tractor rows, and that he likes to plant certain varietals in the coldest regions possible in order to lengthen ripening of the fruit. “We’re really getting into the colder areas, so having good temperature data is critical.”
Wind speed & direction data also helps Small Vines in a number of ways. “Whenever we get over 15 knots of wind, we completely lose photosynthesis no matter how much the sun is shining,” Sloan explains. So, if the weather station tells us we’re over 15 on a frequent basis, I can make planting decisions based on that data, and may decide to put up windscreens. Wind direction information helps me since we try to plant the rows perpendicular to the direction of the wind. The first three vine rows will take the brunt of the wind, but the rest of the block will be protected.” Both the stand-alone data loggers and the Micro Station run on user-replaceable, household batteries, thus eliminating the need for costly solar panels or large battery packs.
The devices also interface with a personal computer on which weather data can be viewed and analyzed using an accompanying software program. Prior to using the HOBO equipment, Sloan had relied on daily weather data from local fire stations. He would also set out thermometers on a daily basis and then compare those readings with the fire station data. “While we could get a sufficient weather profile with this approach, it was fairly archaic in comparison to going out to the site and plugging a logger right into your laptop.” He also mentions that data loggers and weather stations provide a more cost-effective solution to weather monitoring over more expensive weather network terminals, and the compact design of the devices make them more suitable to tracking temperature changes within the fruit zones of vineyard canopies.
Once weather data have been collected for a given period of time, data are offloaded from the logger to a laptop computer. Using HOBOware graphing and analysis software, with a few clicks of a mouse button, the recorded data are translated into graphical charts in which various time-stamped weather parameters can be compared and correlations can be made. Sloan stores all the data on a disk, and eventually plans on performing more detailed data analysis. “One of these winters I’m going to correlate the data from all of our ranches on a spreadsheet and rate each one from coldest to warmest. This way, when I’m selling fruit to wineries and they are looking for specific blends, I will be able to correlate temperature and soil types into flavor profiles and establish flavor profiles from various areas.”
Having used the HOBO equipment since the company’s inception in 1998, Sloan feels that the company has been able to not only produce great fruit, but also to maintain a competitive edge in the market. “The more I can learn about a piece of land before I put the vines in the ground, the better job I can do in getting things right the first time. There’s a lot of thought process we put into planting a vineyard, and being able to automatically track things like weather and frost on our sites has helped us make better decisions right from the start.”
For more information about data loggers and HOBOnet wireless sensor network solutions for vineyard monitoring, contact us! 508-759-9500, or visit www.onsetcomp.com.