Purdue Startup Uncorks Grape Technology for Winemakers

Posted: Updated:
VinSense's Dr. Phillip Owens and Dr. David Ebert work with a winery owner in Napa Valley. VinSense's Dr. Phillip Owens and Dr. David Ebert work with a winery owner in Napa Valley.

When sipping a glass of wine, it’s likely science isn’t top of mind, but that’s what determines the flavor profile of your pinot, says West Lafayette-based VinSense. The startup decodes the science behind grape growing to help vineyards produce the best possible fruit for the optimum glass of wine. Buoyed by a recent $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the startup has its first paying customer and is uncorking its product for the market this spring.

Three Purdue University faculty created VinSense’s technology. One of its creators, Chief Technology Officer Dr. David Ebert, has a long history of learning about wine: he made wine for his fourth grade science fair project.

VinSense’s technology has two components; the first involves detailed data collection. The startup places inexpensive, commercially available sensors in the soil of vineyards—up to 20 per acre, each no deeper than 10 feet underground.

The sensors gather data on soil variation, moisture and other factors in very high resolution, creating 10-foot square soil maps. The second component translates the huge amount of information into a visual format on a tablet or laptop, helping vineyards make decisions about managing the crop while it’s still growing.

“The soils that grapes are grown on are much more complex [than other crops] and highly varied,” says Ebert. “Growers in the western U.S. are dealing with unprecedented growing conditions with droughts that haven’t occurred in hundreds of years—and back to back. They need more information. Grapes are a high-value crop, and the final product of wine makes wine grapes the highest-value crop per acre in the U.S.”

VinSense has deployed its system with multiple growers in California, helping them overcome additional challenges, such as heat spikes and unusually warm winters. Growers can compare today’s information to two weeks ago, months ago or previous growing seasons by incorporating historical data.

Dr. Christian Butzke, a Purdue professor of enology and a member of the VinSense founding team, says the technology aims to produce uniformity in the field, so all of the grapes—rather than just some—have the desired composition. Unlike other crops, Ebert says the main focus is less about volume and more about the grapes’ characteristics.

“[Growers] are trying to get a concentration of flavors in the grape, so you get the right balance of acids, sugars, phenolics, tannins and all of these other flavor components,” says Ebert. “If you produce just the biggest, juiciest grapes possible, you get a very watery, flabby glass of wine. So growers really focus on controlling the moisture and composition of their grapes.”

While VinSense has helped vineyards weather drought conditions in California, it’s often the opposite problem in Indiana. The startup is partnering with Huber’s Orchard, Winery & Vineyards in Clark County to further tweak its technology beginning this spring. Because it has 700 acres of orchards in addition to its vineyards, Huber’s is an ideal location to explore the technology’s use on other fruits.

“The more data and information we have, it gives us the tools to optimize the quality of the grape while it’s still hanging in the vineyard,” says Huber’s President Ted Huber. “The better quality of grape coming in from the vineyard, the better quality of wine we have when it comes time to bottle it. But we’re equally excited about [using the technology] in the orchards, because we’re not just making grape wines, we’re making peach wines and apple wines.”

VinSense says the recent NSF grant will help modify its technology for Midwest soil conditions, other fruits and nuts and gain more traction in the market as it launches next month—hopeful growers will be toasting victories in their vineyards. 

Huber says the technology will uncover new data on more than just the grapes in its vineyard.
Ebert says VinSense’s tests in California are helping growers deal with unprecedented growing conditions.
Ebert says the technology will help growers determine their pruning strategy; part of the crop is dropped during the growing season to concentrate the grapes’ flavors.
  • Perspectives

    • How to Ensure Proper 401(k) Benefits Education

      From pay rate to wellness programs, there are many important areas that employers need to pay attention to regularly; however, there is one that is often forgotten — 401(k) benefits. A 401(k) plan provides employees with the opportunity to deduct a portion of their pay and use it as a contribution towards retirement. Properly saving for retirement is vital to ensuring a healthy lifestyle after an employee’s career comes to an end, but 50 percent of Americans claim to not...

    More

Events



  • Most Popular Stories

    • Hoosier Schools Among 'Best Colleges in America'

      Nearly two dozen Hoosier institutions are included in MONEY magazine's rankings of the Best Colleges in America. More than 700 schools are on the list, which was determined by a number of factors in three categories, including quality of education, affordability, and outcomes.

    • I-69 Delays Causing More Bloomington Traffic Problems

      Construction to complete section 5 of I-69 will take longer than expected and will impact students returning to IU. The "substantial completion" date for the stretch of interstate was August 31, but INDOT officials now say despite an accelerated schedule of 16-hour work days and six-day work weeks, the work won't be done for several more weeks.  INDOT says the construction will pose challenges for drivers in and around Bloomington through the end of the ...

    • (Image courtesy of Inc.)

      Hoosier Companies Part of Inc. 5000

      An annual ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in the country includes 63 Hoosier businesses. Greenwood-based The Garrett Companies is again tops among Indiana companies on the Inc. 5000 list, breaking into the top 10 in the U.S. for the first time. Its number 10 national ranking is the highest for an Indiana-based business since 2016 when eLuxurySupply.com in Evansville placed fourth.

    • (Rendering of phase two of the Riverfront Fort Wayne project provided by the city of Fort Wayne.)

      Fort Wayne Riverfront Contract Pulled

      A proposed $2.5 million contract for the design work for the next two phases of the Riverfront Fort Wayne project has been pulled. Our partners at WPTA-TV report the Fort Wayne City Council withdrew the contract, which was set to go to Philadelphia-based DAVID RUBIN Land Collective.

    • Indy Airport Poised For Another Record Year

      A new report shows the Indianapolis International Airport is on pace to break last year's passenger traffic record. Through the first half of the year, the Indianapolis Airport Authority says passenger totals have risen 7 percent on the backs of record-breaking April, May and June traffic figures. In 2017, 8.77 million passengers flew through IND. In an interview with Inside INdiana Business, Executive Director Mario Rodriguez attributed the increases to...