Clos de la Tech Wine: Combining Ancient Principles with Modern Technologies

By Ben Narasin | July 13, 2015
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clos de la tech
Photography by Chip Allen

T. J. Rodgers, the founder and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, is not the first technologist turned winemaker to apply his New World fortune to one of the planet’s oldest, and most revered, beverages, but he may be one of the most innovative and detail-obsessed.

While learning to make wine Rodgers says he “spent as many hours reading technical journals on winemaking as I did reading electronics journals for my PhD.” Now his time spent on winemaking study has eclipsed his academic study time; he finished his electronics PhD work in four years and is now 10 years into his study of wine science.

Rodgers’ first vintage was 1996. He says that by “2000 I really knew how to make wine.” His model is one of ancient practices in modern-day machinery with bleeding edge, often self-invented, monitoring to ensure nothing goes wrong, or at least that he knows immediately when it starts to.

Today, Clos de la Tech wine has grown to five Pinot Noirs that are produced from three vineyards: Domaine du Docteur Rodgers (the one-acre, hand-farmed site we visited in Woodside); Domaine Valeta (named after Rodgers’ wife, which is three and a half acres and over 2,000 feet above sea level in the Santa Cruz Mountains); and Domaine Lois Louise (the largest of the three at 163 steep, ocean-exposed acres, in the Santa Cruz Mountains).

Understanding that the best wine starts in the vineyard, Rodgers applies every technical tool he can to ensure optimal conditions for his crops.

Tools for harvest

“The wine is made in the field,” he says. “The best wine you can make is already known when you harvest [the grapes]. If you don’t make mistakes, the wine is made. There are stylistic differences, you can make heavier or lighter wines, but if you harvest at the right time you can’t do much about [improving] the wine.”

It was with this belief that Rodgers started doing experiments in the field. He experimented with temperature control. He experimented with irrigation. He experimented with leaf pulling, to allow the grapes to get more sun.

But too much sun, and making the grapes too hot for too long, proved sub optimal. So Rodgers trained his grapes, and pruned off many, to create dappled sun.

Rodgers also designed a process to cool the field with a cooling system using sprayers that work directly from a drip system. Developed by Wade Rain out of Oregon, the special spray nozzles can take the water from the drip hose (with high pressure) and pulse spray it to the cooling area requiring very little water. “It’s basically a huge AC system for the vineyard,” he says.

And in every instance he monitored and measured.

In his temperature-control experiments he monitored 36 clusters of grapes by radio, transmitting their readings to a computer in his kitchen so he could obtain an accurate record for analysis.

He used the temperature readings to turn the cooling system on and off.

Rodgers then made wine separately from both cooled and un-cooled grapes and found the first year that the cooled grapes made slightly better wine. And when your mission is to make the best pinot noir in the new world, “slightly” matters. However the second and third year results scored equally in all three blind tastings. Therefore, he removed the field AC. Though the process proved too expensive to experiment in his larger vineyard (the experiments were done on his home vineyard in Woodside), the learnings informed how he trains the grapes in his larger vineyard to the morning side to avoid the consistent heat of the sun throughout the day.

Rodgers also focused on how much water to give the grapes. “A happy grape that is over watered will make mediocre wine,” he says. So he wants his grapes “watered enough to be healthy, but that’s it.”

Instead of watering by a set schedule, Rodgers waters by measuring the “leaf water potential in the vines,” a measure of when the plants are drying. To determine this he takes a leaf of a plant, at the same time each day, and puts it in a pressure chamber to see how much pressure is required to squeeze out a drop of water. This shows with great accuracy when the plant is drying out and when to water. Eventually Rodgers hopes to find or create a probe he can insert directly into the stem of the leaf to measure the drying and trigger watering remotely.

Rodgers learned from an Australian journal that allowing a plant’s roots to dry out causes the release of beneficial hormones, which cause a reaction in plants (PRD, Partial Rootzone Drying). To achieve this in a measurable and controllable way he designed a system to alternate watering between the different sides of the plants at different intervals. The result both saves water and “releases a hormone that causes all the attributes of ripeness to occur in extreme.”

To navigate the steep and sloped terrain of the vineyards at Domaine Lois Louise, Rodgers designed a tractor, referred to as SMS (Slope Management System), which uses a carrier (that remains at the top of the slope) and a cable to allow for the tractor to be lowered into the vineyard. The tractor is driven by a joystick and radios to the carrier when it needs to be pulled up or down.

High- and low-tech winemaking

Once the grapes are harvested they go into a winery that uses ancient principles, which Rodgers monitors religiously with modern technology. “In my winery, paradoxically, I use 1830s technology,” he says. “We literally stomp grapes with our feet.”

Rodgers is “faithful to a recipe for making Burgundy from the 1830s from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the renowned Burgundy house that inspired his winery name, label and bottle design. “But we have high-tech monitoring,” he says. Still, “in our winery, if you were a grape, other than bumping up against stainless steel instead of wood, you would not know you were not in the 1830s in Burgundy.”

Most of the winemaking processes Rodgers espouses are meant to handle the grapes and wine as gently as possible—including the use of gravity for wine flow instead of pumps to avoid pressure, punching down the wine instead of pumping it over to submerge the cap of grape skins gently without mechanical intervention.

Also, siphoning the wine by hand from the barrel for bottling instead of using machines, and doing so without filtering, allows the wine its most gentle journey and to maintain its full character. “Wine should be a living thing and not something that comes out of a machine,” Rodgers says.

But with all the low-tech handling of the wine, “I do watch everything electronically. That’s the one difference between me and the winemaker of the 1830s. I get an advance warning before something goes wrong.”

Rodgers had a self-proclaimed disaster in 1998 when he lost two tanks of wine, and he learned his lesson. Now fermenters are measured constantly, looking for problems. The control center “looks like a nuclear facility.” He hasn’t lost a tank of wine since.

In the end does high-end monitoring make a better wine? “My monitoring helps me get rid of the ugly stuff, but it doesn’t make any better wine than the best of the 1830s.”


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