Winemaking may be considered a traditional craft, but the industry has never shied away from technology. Will AI kickstart another revolution?

The winemaking world is steeped in tradition, yet it has always embraced innovation to enhance its time-honoured craft. The advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) marks a revolution and a renaissance – a rebirth of technological transformation within this ancient art.

With its knack for handling repetitive tasks, AI introduces unprecedented finesse and unwavering precision, further elevating the quality and consistency of the wines we enjoy.

AI in Vineyard and Winemaking Operations.

Despite what we believe about the tradition-bound winemaking world, the truth is that winemakers have always been quick to embrace technology. Appellation laws allowing, of course. From the use of irrigation and the grafting of vines and the more recent adoption of of GPS and GIS technologies to track conditions for precision vineyard management,

What’s happening today with AI is no different. Vineyards are embracing AI-enabled technology to modernise traditional practices, address challenges, and achieve newfound levels of efficiency. And not because it’s AI; that’s what the solution is built on. 

The fundamental device that enables all of these is the humble sensor. At Napa Valley, California’s Bouchaine Vineyards, IoT sensors play a dual role — they deploy sensors in their vineyards to collect extensive data on temperature, humidity, soil moisture, and more. AI algorithms process this data so winemakers can make hyper-localised decisions about irrigation, disease prevention, and harvest timing to improve the quality of the grapes. 

The sensors can be used as a preventive measure. In this case, sensors inside fermentation tanks allow for real-time monitoring, with AI analysing the data to catch potential issues early and optimise the fermentation process. In this example, AI can support quality control and resource conservation with its proactive approach.

Of the many possible interventive measures that can be taken, one of the most intriguing ones has to be the possibility of preventing disease. Indeed, the ever-present threat looming in the shadows and posing a significant risk for winemakers. Innovative projects like the VinEye robot trials in New Zealand feature robots that analyse grapevine health at a speed and accuracy that surpasses manual monitoring. Thus, winemakers can swiftly identify diseases like leafroll and intervene in a timely fashion to protect the health and yield of their vines. 

Then there’s water management. Here is another critical area where AI innovation can hope to shine. For example, California’s Foley Family Farms employs sensors and AI from Tule Technologies to help them better manage their water use. This system dynamically adjusts water usage based on real-time weather conditions, optimising resource use and minimising waste — a crucial goal in drought-prone regions.

AI powered tech will eventually make light work of agrarian toil. (credit: This is Engineering, Pixabay)

However, those expecting a full automation of wine grape harvesting will be disappointed. There’s some way to go before we can leave the picking to machines. However, the autonomous drones from Tevel have shown that they can be used to pick fruits; currently they range from plums to apples, demonstrating the potential of fruit picking with AI and drones for the future.

Sometimes, it’s about not reinventing the wheel. Bodegas Cepa 21 in Spain worked with IBM’s AI platform, Watson, to meticulously analyse historical winemaking and weather data. This way, they can discover insights that may have otherwise passed unseen through tired human eyes and have the potential to aid winemakers in making informed decisions for optimal harvests. At the moment, It’s unlikely that we will know the efficacy of these nuanced insights, but winemaking is at a stage where it’s all about the fine margins.

AI-Driven Quality Control & Flavour Optimisation.

Meanwhile, across Europe, the VAVIT project (artificial vision in the wine sector) demonstrates another facet of AI’s potential: quality control. One of the most important aspects of any production cycle, this mind-numbing process is essential for guaranteeing positive customer experiences. Collaborations between wineries like Masia Vallformosa and Juvé&Camps, packaging sector companies, and research clusters are working to integrate AI vision systems into quality control to check for impurities and defects in the wine, proper labelling, and perfect closure of the bottle. This could potentially improve the meticulousness of the process, which is essential for product integrity, be it the wine, labels or closures.

The more scientific the approach, the higher the chance we can bring technology into the equation. It’s worth thinking about how wine quality is assessed and maintained. To go one further, we can think about how flavours are developed. By analysing both chemical composition and sensory attributes, we can build detailed wine profiles, and with these solid building blocks, we can bring algorithms into the picture.

While still in its nascent stages, AI has the potential to play an even greater role in fine-tuning wine flavours that align with market preferences. Imagine AI systems analysing vast quantities of consumer data to identify flavour trends, correlating those trends with the chemical composition of wines, and ultimately suggesting vineyard or winemaking adjustments to create wines that perfectly resonate with the market’s palate. Hold on, maybe that’s not entirely a good idea after all? We’ll find out soon enough: Tastry currently offers a service called CompuBlend, which uses AI to generate blend candidates and recipes according to the winery’s characteristics and projected market demands.

There’s no telling how far we can take this. In 2023, a team from the University of Geneva collaborated with the Institute of Vine and Wine Science from the University of Bordeaux to develop a system to identify the exact origin of a wine through its chemical makeup. According to their study, the AI managed 100% accuracy in identifying the wine in a pool of 80 wines from seven Bordeaux estates.

Consumer Engagement and Marketing.

Of course, much of this happens in the ‘shadows’. What we experience firsthand is slightly different. AI changes how wineries interact with consumers through personalised experiences and tailored marketing strategies. AI-powered recommendation apps like Vivino and Hello Vino analyse vast datasets of user ratings, reviews, and taste preferences, offering suggestions aligned with individual tastes. 

Meanwhile, WineSensed offers a unique approach: through extensive wine-tasting experiments, it collects data based on how participants rank wines according to similarities in flavour. Combining this data with hundreds of thousands of wine labels and user reviews from platforms like Vivino, WineSensed’s algorithms achieve a deeper understanding of individual preferences and possibly greater accuracy.

Ethical Considerations and the eventual embrace.

Without a doubt, the rise of AI raises concerns about potential workforce displacement. As AI automates tasks, those without expertise in data analysis or AI-related technologies may be disadvantaged, which means that training programs to bridge this knowledge gap are essential for the wine industry workforce. Additionally, ethical concerns about possible biases in AI algorithms must be addressed: transparency in how AI recommendations are generated and how AI-powered systems make decisions can make or break consumers’ trust.

Prowine Singapore 2022 pouring wine
AI can’t account for the complication that is the human heart; there’s no substitute for that just yet.

Hence, it’s unlikely these AI-generated insights will replace human experts who offer more beyond these concise datasets. For now, at least, and much like all other AI implementations, they are expected to supplement the expertise of human professionals and experts, offering additional data points and insights to guide winemaking decisions.

The wine industry stands at a fascinating crossroads. Can it evolve to flourish with tradition and innovation side by side? But also the question remains: do we really want AI to be determining our relationship with wine?

Only time will tell. And AI isn’t telling.

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