How Precision Irrigation Improves the Quality and Quantity of Winegrapes
We’ve all seen a hungry pup scarf down a bowl of food. If you turn away for just a moment, you might look back to find nothing but glimmering stainless steel, licked clean. Then your dog turns to you with those puppy dog eyes, begging for more.
But you don’t give Fido more. Why? You probably sat down with your veterinarian and determined how much food to feed your dog based on their weight, exercise, and diet. You want to keep your best friend as healthy as possible, so you follow expert recommendations for, say, one cup of kibble or 12.5 ounces of the fancy fresh stuff.
That’s precision. You know what your dog needs, so that’s exactly what you give them. Starting to see where we’re going with this analogy?
Crops, like pets, need constant care. While certain essential elements for plant growth are less controllable, like sunlight and soil fertility, what we can exercise great control over is water. Especially in climates where rain is infrequent, irrigation is the one element that humans may confidently command.
While there’s always more research to be done, plant science has come a long way. We have tools to reliably measure the health of our crops and their plant water status. We know from decades - and centuries, even - of studies and farming experience how to interpret the data and understand what the plant needs in order to achieve a desired outcome, whether that’s yield, quality, or both.
Precision Irrigation and California Winegrowing
California produces some of the world’s most sought after wines and grows more grapes than any other state. In 2022, wine producers in California crushed a whopping 3.35 million tons of grapes. In premium growing areas, winegrapes commonly fetch over 10 thousand dollars per ton. In rare cases, ultra premium quality winegrapes have sold for over 60 thousand dollars per ton.
Our ability to irrigate with precision directly impacts grape crops harvested at the end of the growing season, whether we’re growing for quality or quantity. That means irrigation decisions affect the bottom line. Too little water, and yields will be down. Too much water, and berries might lose their optimal concentration of phenolic compounds, possibly rendering them unsuitable for a winemaker’s intentions. It’s not rocket science, but there is a science to it.
Most winegrowers in California rely on drip irrigation, which is a time-tested tool for delivering water to vines at semi-regulated amounts while reducing waste. But irrigations are most commonly scheduled based on duration of time to achieve an estimated volume of water delivery.
Because we have the scientific ability to determine how much water each vine needs to achieve a desired outcome, based on metrics like plant water status and soil moisture, shouldn’t we be irrigating according to that specific volume?
Precision irrigation allows us to deliver the exact amount of water we want to the vines because it’s based on volume, not time. When you know how much water is flowing through your drip lines in any given vineyard block, you can stop watering when you know the right volume has reached your crops. Smart valves go one step further by eliminating guesswork and dependency on human supervision. You tell your smart irrigation system precisely how much water you want to deliver to the block, and it does it for you. Just like that.
As both a bastion of technological innovation and a global leader in wine production, California is positioned to pave the way for precision irrigation in vineyards with a plethora of benefits for growers:
- Improve fruit quality for winemaking. No more under or overwatering.
- Increase or maintain crop yields. Stimulate or control vigorous growth and fruit set.
- Reduce water waste. No more volumetric estimations.
- Reduce costs. Save on water costs, save on pump energy costs, and save on labor costs.
- Help comply with evolving environmental policy. As communities address water scarcity, growers don’t need to fear using more water than legally permitted and can rest assured that their water use records are accurate for potential auditing.
Precision irrigation isn’t something to watch for in the future. It’s here now, and it’s been proven to be effective. We’re here to implement it today for better winemaking tomorrow.