I had the opportunity to talk to Karl Wente, Chief Winemaker and COO of Wente Vineyards this week during the Monarch Tractor product launch event. Karl is a Fifth Generation Winemaker as his family has been growing grapes and making wine in the Northern California region since 1883.
Karl oversees all Winemaking at Wente Family Estates. Karl joined the family business in 2001 and has led wine innovation, started Nth Degree, and helped expand the Wente Family Estates portfolios. His education includes a degree in Chemical Engineering from Stanford University and two Master’s degrees: one in Horticulture (Viticulture) and one in Food Science (Enology), from the University of California at Davis.
Reducing emissions while cutting costs
Wente has worked closely with robotic tractor startup Monarch Tractor over the last 3 years to develop a new category of farm equipment. On Earth Day 2021 (April 22), Monarch Tractor unveiled the first production unit of its all-electric, compact tractor and handed the keys to Wente Vineyards’ COO, Karl Wente.
Monarch CEO, Praveen Penmetsa, recently moved the Monarch Tractor headquarters from its original location in Fremont, CA, to a new location in Livermore, CA – 15 minutes from the Wente Vineyards. Monarch Tractor has also maintained an on-site barn for the last two years while they deployed and supported their early tractor prototypes on the Wente property. There is a deep friendship and business relationship between Penmetsa and Wente.
While attending the Monarch Tractor kickoff event, I had the chance to pull Karl aside and ask him about the evolution of Agtech, growing grapes and farming. The interview below is paraphrased from our conversion.
Mike: What types of technology have you deployed before Monarch?
Karl: “I’ve always had the philosophy to take the good ideas that are out there, and see how you can apply them all the way through. At Wente Vineyards, we initially started with imaging the fields, because scouting a field takes a lot of time. We’ve got 3,000 acres of grapes at 1,000 vines per acre and that’s a lot of vines to look at. I knew that imaging technology could help the situation here, and so we just started flying over the fields in airplanes to take pictures of the fields at various times of the growing season. Then, over the next year, in vivo hyperspectral imaging became the next wave of innovation in farming. At Wente, I’ve always sent people out to the fields to scout for leaf color, to scout for cluster count and to scout for the length of the plants. I really like the idea of using cameras (to log data) and implementing data management. Most farmers tend to be like: ‘we’re good with our clipboard and our piece of paper.’
Mike: When you talk about using aircraft, when did you guys start using that type of technology?
Karl: “10-15 years ago, it’s been a while. We also deployed other technology like sap-flow sensors on the vines themselves. Most farmers try and use different sorts of models for evapotranspiration and determine (how much) water is pulling through the vine. They’ll actually deploy a sensor that functions like a blood pressure sensor on the plant. And then based on the heat transfer coming through the vine, we can send back exact data to the system. This lets us know exactly the vine water usage. Then, when we take that information and overlay aerial imagery, we have a better idea of the overall health of the plant. I am an advocate for using any data technology we can, to be the most efficient, sustainable farmers.
Mike: So now with the prototype Monarch Tractor, you obviously have been using the data gathered by the onboard cameras for your analysis over the last year. Is it giving you the type of resolution that you need to make decisions or is that science still evolving?
Karl: “It’s getting there. It’s still evolving. I really can’t wait to deploy it against more vineyards, because we have a very small select number of vineyards that we are prototyping the utilization. What I want to know is: ‘How quickly are those shoots growing?’ We used to go old school – I’d send people out into the fields with yard sticks to take growth measurements. In that case, we’d combine data like millimeters per week, overlaid with the water utilization, overlaid with the temperature, overlaid with fertility. Again, I am always trying to be the best stewards of the land that we can. Use as little water as possible, use as little fertilizer as possible, but still grow a sustainable crop that produces yummy wine.
Mike: Do you expect to deploy the tractor to do missions where it’s just gathering data?
Karl: No. I want to use it (the Monarch Tractor) to mow. I want to use it to spray fungicide. I want to use it for the implements in the back (of the tractor).
Mike: Specifically would you deploy the tractor with no implements just to go drive the field and give you feedback on the growth?
Karl: “It’s a waste of a pass, I would at least put a mower on the back and mow the grass/weeds while the tractor was out in the field.
Editors note: The team at Monarch informed me that based on Wente’s deployment of the prototype Monarch Tractor over the last year, they added functionality to the tractor, and additional cameras to image crops and preserve the image data for use in understanding the growth rates and health of the crop. These enhancements were based primarily on Karl’s feedback on the features that Wente needs on the platform to integrate it into daily operations.