Flying High for Fine Wine


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As a wine growing country, the United States is but an infant. Most vineyards in France and other wine growing regions of Europe can trace their origins back hundreds of years, well before the first vines were planted in Napa Valley or Sonoma County. Because they have many generations of experience backing them up, Old World vintners have always maintained a slight advantage over the United States in the production of high quality wines.

Production Graph Left

Wine Production 1963 -


United States wine production has a short history compared to Europe. Even though the amount of wine produced in the United states has more than doubled since 1963, it is currently only a third of either France or Italy’s production. (Graph by Robert Simmon, based on data from theWine Institute,Wine Online, and theSonoma County Wine Library)


Probably in no area of winemaking has this been more evident than in the cultivation of the grapes. Since the Middle Ages, French wine producers have known that the quality of grapes a vineyard produces is heavily dependent on the health of the vines. Over the centuries, they have carefully studied their vineyards to uncover the slight variations of soil type, soil moisture, and microclimate that contribute to the grape’s flavor. They then tailor their growing methods to suit the grapes being grown and the style of wine they are producing. By doing so they have achieved a far higher level of control over their harvest than their upstart U.S. competitors, who haven’t had the time to learn the lay of their land.

However, with the help of NASA technology, the wineries in California may now have a chance to catch up with their French counterparts. Using remote sensing, multi-spectral imagers mounted on planes, scientists have worked out a way to map the health of the vines across a vineyard in a matter of months instead of decades. Already, several of the larger wineries in Napa Valley, including the Mondavi winery, are using this information to rework their vineyards to get the best grapes. In the future these experiments may allow not only vintners but all crop farmers to know where to sow their crops to get the best results.

next It’s All in the Grapes


NDVI image of a Vineyard
With the help of a sophisticated airborne sensor, scientists from NASA and Robert Mondavi Winery made this vegetation map of a vineyard in Napa Valley, California. Yellow and tan colors indicate stressed, low vigor vines, while green represents vigorous vines. The stressed vines produced high quality grapes which were made into reserve quality wine. (Image courtesyCRUSH project, NASA Ames Research Center)