Delicato Family Vineyards: Integrating Ag Tech from Soil to Glass

Delicato Family Vineyards, Manteca, CA.
Delicato Family Vineyards in Manteca, CA, is leveraging precision ag technology to tailor its management practices to optimize grape production.

Tucked away amidst the softly rolling green hills of California’s uber-productive Central Coast Valley, Delicato Family Vineyards (DFV) is quite literally smack dab in the middle of the convergence of precision ag technology and California’s always-growing viticulture industry.

To the northwest sits the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, ground-zero for technology innovation currently in the U.S. Beyond that is the famed Napa Valley wine making region, where simply slapping the region’s namesake on a wine label can make a HUGE difference in how much a vintner can market that bottle of wine for around the country.

His office housed in a modest prefabricated trailer a stone’s throw from DFV’s on-location formulation plant, flanked by over 2,000 acres of permanent grape “blocks” (individual wine fields) and another 1,300 acres of yet-to-be-planted ground, DFV senior viticulturist Gregory Brun — perhaps yet another example of the always evolving makeup of agriculture’s trusted advisor role — is tasked with heading up the third-generation, family-owned vintner’s continued foray into ag tech.

Stepping into his office, one immediately notices Brun’s desk is surrounded by thickly bound books on viticulture, Trimble GIS gadgets, aerial maps, iPads, and other mobile technology platforms. A quick look around gives the impression that DFV is quite serious about leveraging technology to ensure its offerings meet self-imposed quality standards, as Brun so succinctly states on the day of our visit back in March with a thick French accent befitting a viticulturist, “all the way from soil to glass.”

That means Electro Conductivity (EC) soil zone mapping with the Geonics EM-38 sensor (aka managing different parts of the field for variability in the water-holding capacity of the various soil types) to make zone-based irrigation scheduling decisions, weekly aerial imagery integration with ESRI’s GIS platform, as well as deploying Simplot’s SmartFarm software for georeferenced soil sampling data to base in-season (wine grapes are always in-season, hence why they are referred to as permanent crops) nutrient and crop protection product recommendations.

The amount of ag tech cookie jars that Brun has his hands in on a daily basis is somewhat daunting to wrap one’s head around.

But again, this is all being done in the name of matching different wine varietals to variety-specific, optimized production practices, to find the perfect DFV brand fit for specific grapes. In our Midwestern-focused, row crop world within PrecisionAg® Professional’s traditional audience, I’m not sure the corn and bean guys are quite at that level of granularity just yet (no offense, corn and bean guys).

It’s something that I’d guess isn’t too easy without robust data integration to back up Brun’s wine-making expertise.

Gregory Brun, Mapping at computer
Gregory Brun, Senior viticulturist at Delicato Family Vineyards, Manteca, CA, uses mapping to make zone-based irrigation scheduling decisions.

“In order to do that,” Brun says of DFV’s ongoing ag tech play. “Mapping and understanding better the interaction between the land, the climate and the soil, we’re looking for certain…you want to source well, and be able to supply in an economically sustainable way.”

Aside from the soil sensors and irrigation lines and sprinklers, and all the other hardware that DFV deploys in its wine blocks, Simplot’s SmartFarm provides a two-fold value to both Brun and his corporate counterparts with DFV.

“With it we can build the grids, take samples at specific points, map what we get from these samples and extrapolate the data from there,” Brun explains. “All of those things basically are valid, but they are better when we can extrapolate correctly, and so I think there are two goals with our Simplot partnership: the first goal is to extrapolate correctly the information that we get from soil sampling.

“And second,” he adds. “Is to have in one place the information available, not only for me or my team but for the whole company to look at from different perspectives, whether it’s the wine makers or core operations departments. Since it’s a corporate environment you have splits between different departments, communication is very important.”

Producing about 10 million cases of wine annually on ground that typically goes for around $30,000 per acre, DFV needs precision technology to ensure consistent production levels across the many blocks Brun and his team manage. As far as its level of adoption in context with other area growers, Simplot Grower Solutions Advisor III Martin Johnson, who hosted us for the day and helps DFV with its SmartFarm integration efforts, likes to characterize area growers with his 2-6-2 rule.

“In this area out of 10 growers I’d probably say two are like Delicato, embracing a lot of different technologies and kind of on the cutting edge of things, six are actively looking at ag tech and wondering how it would look on their operation, and the other two don’t want to hear it yet,” he explains.

“Dealing with variability is very difficult,” Brun explains when asked what drove DFV’s technology pursuits early-on. “Water is so important here in California, and we need to smooth out these variabilities in order to get our irrigation right.”

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