Perfecting Pinot at Clos de la Tech

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Right now, on very small blocks of his vineyards, which ride the ridge between Half Moon Bay and Woodside, underground

It took a decade of rigorous experimentation with fermentation techniques, chemical adjustments and homemade gadgetry, but by 2006, tech mogul-turned-vintner T.J. Rodgers accepted that the old-school way of making wine was the only way to go.

“After 10 years, I realized what the French have known for centuries: that wine is made in the vineyard,” explains Rodgers, who founded Cypress Semiconductor in 1982 and grew it into a $1.8 billion company by the time the Wisconsin-raised, Stanford-educated, 69-year-old engineer retired last year. “You can’t improve wine quality from poor grapes. Winemaking is a downside-only exercise, where you can either turn the grapes you have into the wine they’re capable of, or worse.”

Rodgers started Clos de la Tech Winery more than 20 years ago as a backyard hobby in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his wife, Valeta Massey. But only in recent years has his attention turned so dramatically toward the vineyard. “He just can’t stop himself,” said Massey, the official winemaker. “He’s gotta know everything.”

That’s not to say Clos de la Tech has gone low-tech, however. Right now, on very small blocks of his vineyards, which ride the ridge between Half Moon Bay and Woodside, underground probes are monitoring water absorption rates and radioing that information to a central computer, which then relays it to irrigation valves powered by thumbnail-size solar panels. “In a typical vineyard, you can find plants that are dying for water and undercropping, and you can find plants that are waterlogged and producing poor-quality fruit,” said Rodgers. “With this combination, we can turn on the right valve for the right amount of time whenever the vineyard needs it.”

The resulting technology — which Rodgers is starting to sell through his startup company WaterBit Inc. — is likely to conserve water and ensure more evenly dispersed and ripened grapes. “No longer will we have to think of the a 10-acre vineyard as being a monolithic piece that you control as one unit,” said Rodgers. The Waterbit technology will be a boon for large commercial grape growers and other fruit and vegetable farmers, who also use their irrigation systems to distribute fertilizers, called “fertigation.” Their pocketbooks will be protected, but so will groundwater, as farmers will only use the fertilizers that their plants actually use.

“That could be huge not only for our industry but just for agriculture in general,” said David Goldfarb, Clos de la Tech’s winegrower. “It will be a win for water savings and a real win for wine quality, so it’s a noble effort that has a lot of momentum right now.”

It’s just the latest eye-opening effort by the ambitious Clos de la Tech team, whose innovative impacts on the wine industry extend far beyond the roughly 2,000 cases of five different Pinot Noirs that they make each year. The story starts in 1992, when Rodgers and Massey — who’ve been together since 1986 but didn’t marry until 2008 — built a home in Woodside and were contemplating landscaping. Their neighbor, Bob Mullen of Woodside Vineyards, persuaded them to plant grapes in 1994, and they caught the bug by their first vintage in 1996.

“Every Saturday, TJ would stare at the barrel and say, ‘Hmm, what could we do today?’” recalled Massey, a former engineer who met Rodgers while working at Cypress. “My propensity is to do everything 100 percent without any compromise,” explained Rodgers, who began reading academic journals on wine, started tinkering with ways to control and monitor fermentation temperatures, and even built his own press.

In 2000, they took the brand commercial and bought two more pieces of vineyard property closer to the ridgetop, including the steeply sloped, ocean-facing property above La Honda where they built their winery into underground caves. That project started in 2001, was delayed by neighbors’ environmental concerns from 2002 to 2009, and finished in 2012.

That’s around the time that Los Gatos-raised Goldfarb heard about the project. As a grad student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he was studying how to capture the volatile but pretty-smelling aromatic compounds that escape from wine while it ferments. Clos de la Tech was developing technology along a similar path, so he reached out, toured the vineyard (“one of the most meticulous”) and winery (“almost like Disneyland”), and gave his spiel about how valuable it would be to collect these aromas and then sell them to large commercial producers whose wines needed better bouquets.

They suggested he talk with Germans they knew. “The next thing I know, they’re flying me out there to talk about the aroma collection and utilization project,” said Goldfarb, who returned to work the 2012 harvest at Clos de la Tech and was then taught how to manage the vineyards by the renowned viticulturist Rex Geitner, who died in 2013. “He put more responsibility for the vineyard on my plate and let things just roll.”

While the aromatic capture project is currently caught in a regulatory limbo — despite wide interest, it’s unclear whether the feds would treat it as distilling, and arcane state laws need some tweaking — Goldfarb, Massey and Rodgers continue to test the scalability of their integrated fermentation control system with UC Davis. That involves a device on fermenting tanks that can manage the temperature, measure brix every 15 minutes, and conduct pump-overs. “You can walk into the winery every morning, look at that control station and see if everything looks good,” said Massey. “If there is any problem, it gives you a signal so you can go directly to that tank and figure it out immediately.”

It’s unlikely, however, that Clos de la Tech will ever use these innovations for their own wines. They’re committed to hand-picking the grapes, hand-sorting them at a small silver table, tossing them in the bin without any destemming, stomping them by foot, and letting native yeasts do their thing. There is a slight cold soak, but that’s only to mimic the chilly weather conditions of October in Burgundy. “We basically make it with the least amount of intervention possible,” said Massey.

The tradition-meets-tech combo makes for a unique work space. “The environment is incredible,” said Goldfarb. “Being surrounded by a commitment to making the best wine possible, and the intelligence creativity, and mind power that’s fueling the operation is really exciting and motivating.”

Although he conquered some of the digital world’s toughest challenges — including increasing the amount of transistors that can fit on a computer chip from about 20 in 1970 to more than 8 billion today — Rodgers is utterly fascinated by how dynamic wine can be.

“If you bring that kind of scientific inquisitiveness to winemaking, where you throw in a living thing, from the ground to the grapes to the microorganisms, the complexity goes up by a factor of thousands,” said Rodgers, who can explain tannin molecule differences, anthocyanin ratios and quercitin creation at the deepest of levels. “Almost all of the breakthroughs in knowledge occur in cross-functional areas, where a mathematician gets involved with a biologist and they discover things that neither could have discovered by themselves. Wine is every bit as cross-functional as the integrated circuit and electrical engineering,” said Rodgers. “I had no idea that was true when I started out with a weekend hobby.”

Matt Kettmann is a Southern California wine writer. Email: travel@sfchronicle.com

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Article Perfecting Pinot at Clos de la Tech compiled by Original article here

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