In The Vineyard – Grapes, Drones and Awards
By Abra Bennett
WALLA WALLA, Wash. — The grape harvest nears as our hot Walla Walla Valley summer draws to a close. The ripe fruit clusters and leafy vines look primordial, timeless. And indeed, grapes have been grown and crushed into wine for at least the past 6,000 years.
But for 99.9% of that time, no drones have been involved.
Although some things about the relationship between soil, water, sunlight and grape vines would still look familiar to a grape grower in 4000 B.C., the times they are a changin’ in Walla Walla Community College’s Stan Clarke Vineyard and College Cellars.
Last summer, the college’s enology and viticulture program hired Joel Perez as its new Director of Viticulture. This month he was named one of Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers for 2017, an annual award recognizing the most influential members of the wine industry’s next generation.
“We are definitely trying to make the WWCC viticulture program a center of excellence,” Perez said. “I want to push the limits of what we can do in Washington viticulture and promote forward thinking.”
When he came to Washington in August 2011 he brought with him 10 years of Marine Corps service, and degrees from Washington State University Tri-Cities in Richland: a B.S. in viticulture and enology and a M.S. in horticulture with an emphasis on grapevine physiology. While at WSU Perez tackled several problems unique to the Pacific Northwest wine industry, including virus identification, irrigation and water management, rootstock trials and late-season grape dehydration.
The first change he made in the WWCC vineyard was the installation of a water monitoring system donated by the John Deere company, which wanted a demonstration site for its technology. The system consists of a weather station, a five-foot moisture probe, a wetness sensor and a solar panel. Using this system and his phone, Perez can tell at any time how much water is in the soil profile down to five feet deep. He can access wind speed and direction, relative humidity, calculated solar radiation and growing degree days.
Once the water monitoring system was installed, Perez learned that John Deere was investing in a new agricultural drone and wanted another demonstration site. The first drone flight over the WWCC vineyard revealed a divot running down the center of the vineyard’s Bordeaux block, a subtle elevation difference that had gone unnoticed. At the same time, coincidentally, viticulture students were doing insect scouting and discovered a small outbreak of blister mites. As it turned out, the infestation occurred exactly along the line of the divot revealed by the drone. This effect is still unexplained.
Recently, Verizon contacted WWCC about yet another donation and another demonstration site, thanks to a referral from Norm McKibben, one of the Northwest’s most respected viticulturists. The Verizon system uses sensors in the drip irrigation line to monitor how much water is being delivered, then reports how much water the next watering session needs to deliver, and when that should take place.
Marveling at the number of donations, Perez said, “There’s a huge community in Walla Walla, and in Washington, that wants to see us succeed. It’s just a matter of opening the door and letting people help us.”
Perez is also making changes in vineyard practices. “We have moved full-force on organics,” he said. “I am not a 100 percent believer in organics, but I am a 100 percent believer in education.”
However, he is becoming increasingly convinced about the value of the organics he used this year. Because the area had a very wet and cold spring, many vineyard managers faced powdery mildew. So far, the college’s vineyards haven’t seen any.
“I don’t think enough people know about the great things we’re doing here in the Walla Walla Valley,” Perez said. “My goal is to make us as successful and as well-known in the realm of viticulture as we are in enology,” he said. “So I will continue to shoot for the stars, and if we only hit the stratosphere, I’ll take it!”