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 Well Are You Tracking Your Marketing?

      One of the first metrics business owners learn about is return on investment, or ROI. Earning the highest possible ROI is critical when running a business. You make investments with the expectation that you’ll have something to show for them. So how's the ROI on your investment in marketing and advertising? If you’re like most business owners, your answer is something like "I think it's pretty good" or "things seem to be working."

    More

Events



  • Most Popular Stories

    • Triple XXX Root Beer Appears in Prime Time

      A soft drink that carries the name of an iconic West Lafayette restaurant has been featured on a national television series. In a message on the Triple XXX Family Restaurant's Instagram page, co-owner Carrie Ehresman said the recent appearance of Triple XXX Root Beer on NBC's "Chicago Fire" was not product placement. She said the show's producers reached out through the restaurant's website and "we weren't sure we'd make the final cut until it aired!"

    • $13M Townhome Development Debuts in Carmel

      Indianapolis-based real estate developer Onyx and East has unveiled a $13 million luxury townhome development in Carmel. The Uptown at WestClay is set to hold its grand opening the first weekend in June.

    • Indy Dealership Owner Charged With Money Laundering

      An Indianapolis man is facing federal charges for allegedly laundering the proceeds of an international advance-fee scheme through his used car dealership. The U.S. Department of Justice says Tochukwu Nwosisi, the owner of Indyrides LLC, allegedly use the money for personal use and to purchase vehicles that were shipped to the scheme's perpetrators in Nigeria.

    • Despite Profit Increase, Shoe Carnival Predicts Store Closings

      Evansville-based Shoe Carnival Inc. (Nasdaq: SCVL) is reporting fiscal first quarter net income of $13 million, up from $8.2 million during the same period last year. Despite the increase, the company says it expects to close up to 25 stores throughout the fiscal year while adding three new locations.

    • Mecum Indy Auction Hits Record Sales

      The Mecum Auction's annual Original Spring Classic event at the Indiana State Fairgrounds set a record. The organization says overall sales grew 24 percent from the previous year, generating nearly $70 million. Mecum says 1,406 vehicles were sold at the auction with the highest-selling vehicle being a 2017 Ford GT that sold for $1.8 million.