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America's Leading Winemaking School Goes Platinum

A new, high-tech green winery changes the flavor of education and research at UC Davis

Dana Nigro
Posted: October 27, 2010

On a recent weekday morning in October, a wine-production class is in full swing at the University of California at Davis. A group of students and their professor meet in a sunlit, glass-walled classroom, before moving into the adjacent fermentation hall to check the progress of grapes they crushed a few weeks ago, now fermenting in small stainless-steel drums. Ten students head into a nearby lab to analyze samples.

Meanwhile, dozens of fermentations are bubbling away in pods of gleaming-new, 200-liter research fermentors, which provide automated temperature and sugar-level readings and can even be programmed to conduct regular pump-overs. Winemaker Chik Brenneman is monitoring each tank remotely from the control room, as the sensors transmit readings wirelessly to his computer, graphing the progress of each ferment on his screen. Over in the crushpad area, amid a full range of cutting-edge commercial winery equipment, Vermentino is being pressed; the juice will be used for other teaching and research projects.

At first glance, all this appears perfectly normal, exactly what you might expect to see at UC Davis, home of the United States’ leading viticulture and enology program, whose graduates work at top wineries and universities all over the world. In fact, this scene represents a huge change.

Just in time for the start of the 2010 fall semester, the Department of Viticulture and Enology moved out of its old winemaking facility, built in the 1930s, and into a new $15 million teaching and research winery, part of a 34,000-square-foot complex that also includes a new brewery and a food-processing plant. Outside sits a new 12-acre vineyard, which will give students more hands-on viticulture experience. Inside, staff are setting up a sophisticated wireless network with an eventual total of 152 high-precision fermentors custom-designed, fabricated and tested by research engineers at Cypress Semiconductor—a $1 million gift from founder and CEO T.J. Rodgers.

Before the new facility opened, the 140 undergraduate and grad students in the department had to make wines in plastic buckets and glass containers, and some of the equipment looked like it belonged in a museum. And the 14 faculty members struggled with research projects because they didn't have enough tanks or couldn't control temperature and humidity precisely enough to get replicable results.

“What we've been teaching students with was 20 or 30 years behind where a commercial winery was,” says professor David Block, vice chair of the department. “Moving in here, we’re 10, 15, even 20 years ahead of where commercial wineries are. The hope is that, since this has been designed in a flexible way as a platform for innovation, we can be constantly ahead of the industry, so we show students how wineries are doing things now and what they could be doing in the future.”

The faculty are equally excited about the prospects for research, such as studying the effect of temperatures on extraction in red wine or looking at how filtration affects the sensory characteristics of a wine. The scale and measurement precision of the new fermentation system “lets us do things we could never do,” says enology professor Roger Boulton. Researchers will be able to tackle large projects, such as running 50 simultaneous fermentations a week to look at variations by clones, rootstocks, crop level or site—without being affected by variations in the winemaking. “We have the ability to answer the big questions when others can’t,” says Boulton.

On top of that, the facility may be the greenest winery in the world—the only one built so far according to LEED Platinum standards, the highest rating for energy efficient and environmentally friendly building design, a status UC Davis hopes to officially cement in January after the U.S. Green Building Council reviews the application and documentation.

An extensive array of photovoltaic panels being installed on the roof should provide enough solar energy to power the winery even at its busiest during harvest. “This is an energy-positive building,” says Boulton, a winery-engineering expert who was instrumental in the building's development. “Most people are talking about being energy-neutral. This makes more than it consumes.”

Graphic courtesy of UC Davis

The new winery is packed with environmentally friendly features. Click graphic for more detail.

Water usage is a big focus, as water shortages are increasingly challenging growers and producers around the world. The complex incorporates a system to collect rainwater from the roof and landscaping, filter it through a “bioswale” of vegetation and rocks to remove silt and pollution, and store it in tanks; that gray water is then used for toilets and irrigation. Funds are being raised for a system that will automate tank and fermentor cleaning to reduce water usage and labor.

The university's goal is to use the LEED building to educate the wine industry about sustainability—it's both a showplace of what a winery can implement now and a lab for research on new ways to reduce water, energy use and carbon output. “We want to show the thinking and understanding that makes it possible to be self-sustainable,” says Boulton. “The dream is that the winery becomes self-sustainable in water and energy, day and night, and zero-carbon in energy and emissions. We’re three-quarters of the way there.”

To reach that goal, the department wants to construct an auxiliary building, where they would filter captured rainwater through reverse osmosis so it can be used to clean barrels, tanks and fermentors; the wash water could be recycled up to 10 times. Boulton says they also hope to sequester carbon dioxide produced by fermentation and to test hydrogen fuel cells for nighttime energy use. But the department needs an additional $6 million to $7 million in private donations for the building and equipment.

Dozens of prominent wine-industry members and other businesspeople who love wine have already contributed—both financially and through design assistance—to the winery portion of the complex. Boulton says the number of people who want to help the department “at the most severe economic time in two generations is absolutely stunning.”

More than 150 private donors funded the entire complex. The late Robert Mondavi provided an initial grant of $5 million for the winery, along with his donation to build the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, which opened in 2008 and houses offices, classrooms, labs and a sensory evaluation lab. Ronald and Diane Miller of Silverado Vineyards were also substantial contributors. A group of winery partners interested in sustainability—including Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke of Kendall-Jackson and Jerry Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines—provided additional funds beyond their original donations so the building could meet the LEED Platinum standards.

Lohr, a former civil engineer who assisted with the design efforts, is excited by the opportunity for more educational outreach—members of the wine industry can visit the winery to see how the LEED elements work—and for faculty to share their research results. “I think this [facility] opens a whole new vista for cooperation between the university and the industry.”

The new teaching and research winery should have both immediate and long-term impact on the wine industry overall, says Bill Murphy, Clos LaChance winery founder and chairman of the department’s Board of Visitors and Fellows. The department can attract more research funding, he says, and the winery “enhances the university’s ability to retain the best and brightest in faculty and students. When they graduate, they are going to have the latest in technology and they will bring it to the industry.”

“It’s very important for the industry to understand what is now in place,” says Murphy. “They probably saw Davis as the original source of much of the talent, but maybe a little of the luster was lost. Now it’s been polished.”

Dale Mosier
Edwards, CO USA —  October 29, 2010 6:14pm ET
I am delighted to hear of this extensive program to achieve greater excellance at the US premier educational institute. It will be critical to rapidly pass the findings and education onto the American Vinters and incorporate the experience and knowledge of strong vintners into the program. We need to continuously improve our "value" position on a worldwide basis. The US will never be the low cost producer.

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