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These Engineers-Turned-Farmers Are on a Mission to Make Fine Wine

Woodside’s Clos de la Tech beta-tests new ways of managing vineyard grapes.

 

Can an Old World goal be achieved with New World innovation? Cypress Semiconductor founder T.J. Rodgers and his wife, Valeta Massey, think so. The engineers—who met while working at Cypress—are tapping their expertise in a bid to make America’s best pinot noir at Clos de la Tech. Their winery atop three wine caves in Woodside is set on hillsides so steep, Rodgers designed a special tractor to navigate them. A gravity-based siphoning system connects 56 high-tech fermenting tanks of his own design to 1,000 barrels. (They donated 150 of the tanks, a $3.5 million gift, to UC Davis in 2010.)

The couple likes to fail fast and move on. Witness the high-tech misters they tested to keep plants cool on hot days, with sensors feeding information to a computer in their kitchen. They scrapped it when tastings showed the misted wines were too tannic, compared with their wines from unmisted grapes. They’re now testing precision agriculture—with vines connected to a drip system that communicates a plant’s thirst level through probes measuring moisture in the soil. Controlling a plant’s stress level, or the effort it takes for the vine to pull water from the ground, can lead to more finely tuned grapes for better wines, just as trained athletes perform better than couch potatoes.

Control freaks? In a sense, Rodgers and Massey are. They want to improve efficiency and quality in the winemaking world. If the 2012 vintage is any indication, Massey thinks they may be on to something. It’s the first release of wines made from start to finish in their caves, under construction from 2001 to 2012 (wines were previously bottled in San Carlos). The 2012 Domaine du Docteur Rodgers, Domaine Valeta and three from Domaine Lois Louise are “probably some of the best wines we’ve ever made,” Massey says. Each has a Cypress chip—code-named Juno and used in dashboard screens in autos—in the waxed neck of the bottle. “I was worried, when I left Cypress, about losing my brain power in going from engineer to farmer,” she notes. “Agriculture is more high-tech than anyone can imagine.”

 

Originally published in the July/August issue of Silicon Valley

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