A compact, smart, electric tractor has been on the wish list of sustainably-minded winegrowers the world over. With no significant advances in tractor technology for more than a decade, the arrival of the Monarch tractor represents the missing link needed to fast track the integration of precision agriculture and address the growing labor challenges confronting the wine industry.
After spending five long years in development at Motivo Engineering and almost two years in trials in Northern California, the Monarch electric tractor (e-tractor) which takes its name from Carlo Mondavi’s sustainability initiative the Monarch Challenge, made a quiet debut at the Unified Symposium in early 2020.
Mondavi is chief farming officer and co-founder with CEO Praveen Penmetsa, founder and CEO of Motivo, and CTO Zachary Omohundro, a robotics expert from the mining industry, of Monarch Tractors. “At a time when we’re pushing for sustainability which requires spending more time in the vineyard, we’re being confronted with a labor shortage,” said Penmesta. “Our technology is a bridge to sustainability.”
With OSHA stepping down the agricultural work week to 40 hours by 2022, there’s an even greater incentive to manage and automate vineyard tasks. The need to do more with less time and manpower is a reoccurring theme for anyone on the front lines of managing a vineyard.
At a base price of $50,000, the driver-optional Monarch e-tractor delivers 70 horse power (at peak performance) in comparison to the standard 25 horse power of most compact conventional tractors. The e-tractor’s low torque gives it the ability to pull large loads at slow speeds. According to Penmetsa, the Monarch’s low-torque electric engine delivers 200 Newton-meters (N⋅m) of torque compared to the 90 – 120 (N⋅m) of a diesel engine.
For winemaker Steve Matthiasson, who talked with the Monarch development team over the course of a few years providing input on functionality, said the realization of an e-tractor nullifies the most commonly levied argument against organic farming. Namely, objections to the carbon footprint generated by mechanical weed control.
The Monarch is equipped with a single universal, three-point hitch that can accept any implement meeting the tractor’s horsepower requirements. Matthiasson uses several different under-vine implements – Clemens weed knife, Pellenc Under-the-Vine weeder known as the “sunflower,” and Gearmore Spedo in-row cultivators – all of which he’ll be able to use with greater precision and without a drop of diesel. “With the sensing capabilities that built in to the Monarch, we’ll be using all of our implements in a more precise way,” he said. “This moves us one step further along on the continuum of sustainability.”
“The bar for sustainability has been set so low,” said Mondavi. “We absolutely need to get rid of diesel and by going electric, you’ll save $45 a day on diesel and maintenance.”
Jesus Hernandez, vineyard manager and grower relations at Artesa Winery, first saw the Monarch at Unified and has since attended several demonstrations to see the Monarch in action and working autonomously for 30 minutes at a time.
Completing the redevelopment of the estate vineyards at Artesa the majority of which are planted to rolling foot hills at the base of Mount Veeder is a priority for Hernandez. With or without a driver, the Monarch helps insure safety through artificial intelligence, roll and collision prevention, 360° cameras and a full sensor suite designed to protect both workers and the vineyard.
Hernandez sees the Monarch etractor as key to applying precision agriculture. “Using data from the Monarch’s sensors we’ll be able to spot treat for outbreaks of mildew, pests and nutrient deficiencies,” he said. Artesa is planning to take delivery of a Monarch next fall and Hernandez sees adding additional vehicles over the next few years as his existing conventional fleet ages out. Artesa is still in the early stages of planning and considering both solar and wind turbines. “For now, we’ll be using the grid to power the Monarch.”
Penmetsa and Mondavi have spent the last year trialing the Monarch at one of Wente Vineyard’s fallow sites in Livermore. According to viticulture manager Niki Wente, the winery was in the right place at the right time. They worked with the Monarch team to submit a grant proposal to the Bay Area Air Quality District for zero-emission farm equipment and were awarded two Monarch e-tractors. “This fits right in with our sustainability goals,” said Wente. “Reducing emissions is ideal for us; it’s ideal for everyone.” The winery anticipates receiving delivery of their Monarchs in March 2021 and initially plans to use the e-tractor’s automation for mowing, vineyard installation and removal.
The wind turbine at Scheid Family Wines in Monterey, Calif. generates two megawatts of power, some of which is soon going to be charging a Monarch. “With the addition of an e-tractor, we’ll be able to complete the story of generating our own power,” said Greg Gonzalez, director of vineyard operations at Scheid, who knew about the R & D but also got his first look at the Monarch during Unified. “One of the true aspects of sustainability is creating higher value for your workers,” said Gonzales. “By transitioning workers from direct management of the vines to managing precision agriculture systems, we’re upskilling and redefining our labor force.”
Gonzalez is already looking to the near future. “In the best-case scenario, we’ll have two implements working simultaneously with the Monarch and get two vineyard tasks done in one pass.”
Producers in the Portuguese winegrowing region of Alentejo— whose vineyards encompass about 18,000 hectares, or almost a third of the country—have made significant gains in sustainability under the guidance of the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program (WASP).
Launched as a membership program in 2015 by the Comissão Vitivinicola Regional Alentejana (CVRA), WASP offers a certification path that aims to tackle environmental and societal challenges while reducing operational costs and improving the economic health of its members.
“In developing WASP, we benchmarked the most relevant international schemes on sustainability, being strongly inspired by the OIV [International Organisation of Vine and Wine] guidelines as well as [those established by] the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and Wines of Chile, due to the similar characteristics of these [three] regions,” says João Barroso, sustainability manager at the Alentejo Regional Winegrowing Commission, which works with the CVRA to implement the program.
“We also received input from the University of Évora and the Alentejo Winegrowers Technical Association as well as individual Alentejo grape growers and wineries.” Since the program’s inception, its membership has grown steadily and currently comprises 411 wineries and vineyard owners representing approximately 45% of Alentejo’s considerable vineyard area.
Much of that growth can be credited to the support and incentives WASP offers free of cost: In addition to consultancy and assistance with implementing and monitoring sustainability-related practices in the field, the program provides training led by Barroso that’s focused on water, energy, and waste management in both the vineyard and cellar, representing a key value-add for the hundreds of members that have participated.
WASP in Action
The program’s impressive gains over the past five years are indicative of an organization that is striving to build a big membership through inclusion. While the majority of members are already certified organic, it’s not required; others are also part of the Integrated Production of Wine—a separate sustainability program launched in South Africa in 1998—which allows for the limited application of synthetic inputs in the vineyard.
Instead of excluding them, WASP opts to focus on reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides by providing education about alternatives such as cover crops to increase organic matter in the soil and the application of natural nitrates.
In addition, the use of sheep, geese, and bats is encouraged for both managing insect populations and pruning vines. “We are mostly focused on promoting biodiversity in the vineyards with auxiliary insects and cover crops,” Barroso explains. “By establishing ecological corridors and buffer zones around our [members’] vineyards, we have increased the number of insect-eating mammals and birds and have significantly reduced the use of pesticides and spraying.”
WASP participants have also decreased their dependence on pesticides by using equipment that captures and recycles spray drift, reducing chemical use by up to 50%. Another top priority is water conservation, as the production of just 1 liter of wine requires 14 liters of water on average. Producers are reducing their consumption by installing water meters, closely monitoring use, and implementing water-management plans while improving maintenance on their irrigation systems; as a result, some are now using as little as 1.2–5 liters of water to produce 1 liter of wine.
For WASP members, an indirect effect of adhering to these sustainability-driven practices has been better wine quality, according to Barroso, who notes that “savings as a result of conservation can be used to invest in better equipment and next-generation technology.”
Among the producers looking to the future is Herdade do Esporão, which has developed a 9-hectare vineyard to test 180 grape varieties (about 150 of which are indigenous to Portugal) in order to identify those best adapted to the warming climate. “Alentejo consistently has the highest average summertime temperatures in all of Europe,” says Barroso. “We are not planning for climate change; we’re living it.”
The Path to Certification
In order to officially verify its members, WASP launched its third-party certification in July 2020. Producers can work with one of four certifying bodies: SGS, Bureau Veritas, Certis, and Sativa. After conducting the first certification audits in late November, Borroso says that “we anticipate having our first certified producer by the end of the year and at least five producers certified by the first quarter of 2021.”
To become certified, producers must reach what’s known as the “developed” level for each of the requirements defined in the program’s 18 chapters; they also must source at least 60% of their grapes from vineyard areas also registered in the WASP program.
WASP’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed: It was recognized by the European Commission with the 2019 European Rural Innovation Award and is now one of the EU’s Rural Innovation Ambassadors for 2020. The program’s initiatives have drawn the attention of researchers and sustainability groups from the University of California, Davis; Wines of Chile; Italy’s Viva la Sostenibilità nella Vitivinicoltura in Italia (VIVA); and many others hoping to draw inspiration from its progress to improve their own practices.
Over the next five years, Barroso expects WASP to continue making gains toward its overall goals as a result of promoting the use of ecosystem-management services specifically designed to make vineyards and organizations more resilient and adaptable to climate change.
“Climate change is not a one-region or one-country fight,” says Barroso. “Alentejo and Portugal have benefited from learning from other world regions, and we are now proud to also be looked at as a sustainability frontrunner.”
Tasting Notes from WASP-member Producers:
Herdade do Rocim 2017 Olho de Mocho Reserva Branco This monovarietal Antão Vaz shows crisp, mineral citrus and a touch of vanilla; the lush body reflects five months of daily lees stirring.
2019 Peceguina Antão Vaz Exotic floral and tropical-fruit aromas point to a ripe style on the palate, with lemon and grapefruit flavors and a saline, mineral finish.
Luis Duarte 2019 Rubrica Branco This blend of Antão Vaz with Verdelho and Viognier offers delicate aromas of white blossom and a creamy body with notes of white peach and young pineapple.
Herdade do Esporão 2012 Vinha das Palmeiras Alicante Bouschet Scents of violets, sweet tobacco, and dark berries announce flavors of red and black plums as well as dark spices in a structured medium body.
Carmin 2017 Monsaraz Alicante Bouschet Bright aromas of black plum, mulberry, and dark earth lead to a medium-bodied wine showing cedar and black pepper as well as tasty, still-youthful tannins.
Studying wine without the experience of tasting it in real-world settings such as trade events and seminars is frustrating at best. One elegant solution,
developed by author and educator Evan Goldstein, MS, and his business partner, Full Circle Wine Solutions CEO Limeng Stroh, has quickly become the gold standard of study tools for professionals and consumer enthusiasts.
I first learned of the Master the World (MTW) tasting kits in late 2018, when
Goldstein and Stroh mounted a successful Indiegogo campaign to launch their company. The kits contain six screw capped, 187-milliliter bottles of wine selected by a panel of Master Sommeliers and access to both a proprietary online-tasting platform and live webinars led by Goldstein and his colleagues.
“While we had planned for a soft launch once we went live in January 2020, the pandemic accelerated that launch to hang on and grow,” says Goldstein. “[In] the new normal of structured tastings being relegated to the confines of your dining room table or living-room couch, we have seen an enthusiastic response from the trade and consumers alike.”
With travel severely restricted during the lockdown—limiting access to field
research—keeping our tasting skills sharp has proven challenging. Here’s how three industry professionals are using their MTW kits to broaden their horizons.
Santa Cruz native Scott Thomasen is vice president of sales Mountain West, air, seas, and export markets for Vino del Sol, a regional importer of Argentine wine. “With a portfolio of 12 wineries, the kits help me understand other regions; they also keep me from becoming myopic and developing cellar palate,” he says, noting that two wines from the Vino del Sol portfolio are included in the kits for Argentina (as they were designed for blind tasting, we can’t disclose the labels here). “Most consumers aren’t aware of these wines, and it’s a great way to introduce them to these regions and producers.”
Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Awards 2020 Person of the Year Heidi Scheid
can’t wait for her kit to arrive each month. Scheid, who is also the executive vice president of Scheid Vineyards in Monterey County, participates in a tasting group with friends and family members, but she says that it’s not structured enough for someone who wants to constantly keep learning about wine: “When you’re on your own, it can be very hit-or-miss, [but] these kits work on so many different levels.”
Scheid adds that she gets the most out of her kits when she’s tasting along with the live webinar: “The presenters are such gifted speakers, and they make the information very accessible.” Then, when she and her partner taste together, he gets to enjoy the wines and she gets to exercise what she’s learned by acting as his guide. She also has high praise for the kits’ slick design and packaging developed by Goldstein and Stroh.
Kat Thomas, yoga instructor and former wine education and training manager at The Hakkasan Group in Las Vegas, Nevada, is preparing for the Master Sommelier exam and using the MTW kits to replicate the conditions of sitting for the tasting portion. She points to the webinars and online tools—including a “Full Workout” blind-tasting mode for sensory evaluation and a “Quick Picks” mode that encourages tasters to try to guess what’s in their glass—that Goldstein offers with each kit as the biggest value-add: “You have an opportunity to self-check against the tasting notes of the presenters during the live webinar and use the online tool.”
Thomas is also using the kits to lead a private class of eager consumers through blind-tasting sessions, the objective of which is enjoyment. As she explains, “The kits are perfect for exploring on your own, but many consumers genuinely enjoy having a guide.”
No one needs a reason to drink Champagne but ringing out 2020 is certainly a good opportunity to reach for something beyond your sentimental favorite. In an effort to learn more about Billecart-Salmon’s Brut Sous Bois, I asked Mathieu Roland-Billecart for the inside scoop on this particular cuvée.
Mathieu Roland-Billecart is the seventh-generation of his family to oversee Billecart-Salmon. He took over the management of the family holding company and joined the supervisory board in 2013 and became CEO of the Group in 2019. He now manages all the activities of Champagne Billecart-Salmon, including the tasting committee that shapes and validates all the house’s vintages.
DPW – Brut Sous Bois which was first introduced to the U.S. market in 2011 has been compared to Burgundy on several occasions. What do you think of the comparison?
MRB – If people mean it as a compliment then great! There are similarities in terms of grape varieties and terroirs to a certain extent with Champagne when you look from afar, but the two regions are quite distinct when you look at them closely in my opinion. I think where the comparison might come from is that the Brut Sous Bois is vinified in 15 year old Burgundian oak barrels, which give it additional structure and depth to a typical base NV Champagne. It is also the non-vintage we age the most on lees before release (c. nine years on lees for the current release) hence there is a richness to it that make it more of a gastronomy wine than a lighter champagne for an easy aperitif.
DPW – Brut Sous Bois has settled nicely into its very specific style niche and is competing easily with wines that are triple and more of its price. Would you say the wine represents the best quality for its style on the market?
MRB – I am biased perhaps but I certainly agree it is right up there and it is a must try for all wine lovers! With Brut Sous Bois, you have a non-vintage wine that is older than the majority of vintage champagne on the market, including in the prestige category. The blend also includes a majority of grand cru and premier cru so you have amazing quality for the price for those that are looking at a richer style of Champagne. It is also particularly well suited to be paired with food like poultry, mushrooms, (hard) cheeses, etc.
DPW – Although it’s not a direct comparison of style, there are oak-aged Blanc de Blancs receiving very high scores. Is it complexity from the composition of the blend that sets Brut Sous Bois apart or are there other points of differentiation that are more significant?
MRB – It is really a combination of factors that makes the Brut Sous Bois blend unique. It, of course, includes the three mains grapes which makes it different from a Blanc de Blancs but there are more technical differences that set it apart:
- The selection of some of our best parcels are vinified in our oak barrels across Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay with a significant proportion of grand crus and premiers crus.
- The fact we use barrels that are 15 years old on average give richness to the wine through the micro oxidation without making the wine overly marked by the taste of the barrels (that you can get with new barrels).
- The very long ageing on lees (six/seven years minimum and c. nine years in the last release) allow the wine to gain additional complexity.
- A balanced dosage – always decided by blind tasting with our tasting committee – to be able to have a balanced and harmonious tasting experience.
DPW – Given the percentages of Pinot noir and Meunier in the blend, are there any plans for a rosé?
MRB – No plans of that nature currently. Our Brut Rosé has a very distinct identity and we already have a very wide range with 12 cuvées, but never say never.
DPW – What vintage is the base wine for the current release of Brut Sous Bois?
MRB – Base year 2010 with c. 1/3 of reserve wine
DPW – Reviewers have commented that the oak influence has been dialed back from earlier vintages, please elaborate on that observation.
MRB – That’s correct, we have indeed ‘refined’ the style since the very first releases… the oak barrels are getting older, we have aged the wine more on lees, and adapted our selection of parcels to have more finesse. We constantly challenge ourselves to make better wines and we are not scared to adapt/change if we feel it delivers better quality. Whilst it is 100% vinified in barrels it is important this cuvée shares the full Billecart DNA: Finesse, elegance and balance.
DPW – I’ve read that this style relies on partial ML but the house is known for often blocking ML. If partial, why does this work better with the oak fermentation and aging regime?
MRB – For the house as a whole, there is nothing systematic about ML at Billecart-Salmon, we taste every tank after alcoholic fermentation and decide whether to do the ML based on the year, parcels, grape variety etc. hence the vast majority of the blends are partial ML.
Now if we are more specific about Brut Sous Bois, you are correct that because the chai of barrels tend to get more of the top parcels (that typically have greater power and depth), we tend to block (almost) all ML. This is to preserve the tension and freshness with a vinification method (barrels) that tend to bring more oxidation and we also know that the wines from the chai are very likely to end up in cuvées that we age more (Brut Sous Bois, Nicolas Francois, Louis Salmon etc.)
DPW – Is Billecart Salmon’s hallmark technique of double cold settling of particular importance to this style?
MRB – It is across the board, but I would not say this is more important for Brut Sous Bois than the other cuvées. The double cold settling combined with our cold fermentation is one of the main reasons our wines tend to have the finesse and elegance that is the signature of Billecart-Salmon.
Chinese translation by Rex Ting-chia Ting, DipWSET