Vino, Vidi, Vici: Hilgard Project Poised to Conquer Winemaking Technology

The sign on Roger Boulton's door reads, "Where there is chaos, there is opportunity." It's small and not really part of the Hilgard Project, but it explains it succinctly. Dreamed up in August 2001, the project is tackling some of the existing chaos within winemaking and turning it into worldwide research possibilities--with the help of Professor Boulton, whose life passion resides within a small acre of north campus, some of it underground.

Keeping the Baseline
Boulton is Professor of Enology and Chemical Engineering, the Hilgard Project's administrator, and, today, a tour guide, explaining how the various project parts fit together. At the heart of the project, in a non-descript part of Wickson Hall, is a simple Dell computer.

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Although not impressive technologically, the computer serves an important purpose. It houses a growing stockpile of information from UC Davis and around California: experimental values from the department's many research projects, such as how cover crops affect carbon levels below the ground and how vine roots behave under different irrigation regimes (and soon to be weather data amassed over the years by the California Irrigation Management Information System).

Large Tanks, Rubber Boots, and a Wire to the World
Though just a few steps from Wickson Hall, the teaching winery is a decidedly different place. More industrial than academic, it houses large stainless steel tanks, a concrete floor with center drain, and a large jumble of rubber boots for winemaking students to wear in the winery. Boulton is clearly at home here, sprinting up the metal stairway between the six 2000L fermentation tanks, and pointing out the grape skins floating in a slightly-stinky aqueous substance that will someday soon be wine.

From up here, Boulton points to a yellow cord spiraling down one tank, and explains that this simple cord has far-reaching implications: it sends measure ments taken inside the tank through cyberspace and onto other scientists' computers. If a scientist anywhere in the world has a similar cord, a computer, and an Internet connection, she will soon be able to monitor conditions within the tank just as easily as if she were in Davis.

For Boulton, such sharing is about "increasing the number of brains" thinking about winemaking and grape-growing research, and thus breaking the barrier between researchers who have the vineyards, time, funding, and equipment to create experimental conditions (such as those in the tank) and those who don't.

Tellingly, when Boulton talks of the Hilgard Project, issues of copyright don't come up. Instead of viewing this project strictly in terms of what it can bring to UC Davis research (which is substantial), he has raised his sights to include winemaking worldwide. Once UC Davis posts its research data, other institutions around the globe will follow suit and, in the process, broaden everyone's informational base and hasten the rate of scientific return.

Moreover, Boulton believes this system of information sharing and technological innovation could work in other fields, not just in viticulture: "This type of aggregate research approach could be used to track farming procedures for pears, strawberries, apples, or be used in the field of chemistry..." His voice trails off as he imagines countless possibilities.

The Wired Vine
One of the Hilgard Project's several goals is to create a "wired vine," a reference vine at the department's Oakville vineyard hooked up to a host of sensors and cameras. As the vine grows, the sensors and cameras will measure how well the vine does in response to its environment, taking in factors such as how a mountain range in the distance affects the plant's water loss, or how the hour of sunset affects its growth.

Calculations like these will help take the guesswork out of choosing places to plant a nd UC Davis will become the online reference for grapevine measurements. Based on the information the wired vine would bring, a grower would be able to estimate how a vine would perform at different locations, whether surrounded by hills or in a flat, sun-filled place. Boulton sees this as only the first of a state-wide--and, eventually, global--network of web-based vines.

Although the wired vine doesn't yet exist, and neither does the massive compilation of raw data Boulton envisions, this doesn't seem to be an overwhelming concern to Boulton. Private companies such as Rosemount Analytical and OSI Software have augmented the university project, and via this combined effort, Hilgard moves slowly forward from vision to reality.

Fine Art and the UC Davis' Wine Cellar
At the tour's conclusion, Boulton heads down into the campus wine cellar. Inside this dimly lit and befittingly musty space are floor-to-ceiling wine shelves. More than wine, however, rests here. The cellar contains a lot of history, explains Boulton, as he motions to where Ansel Adams once stood, aiming his camera at the cellar's far wall.

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The resulting photograph now hangs in a room in Wickson, and beneath it is a painstakingly-carved wooden table bearing the UC Davis campus insignia. Such works of art, while of a different type than the Hilgard Project, reflect that endeavor's features: carefully-crafted, unique, and long-lasting. Completing the project will surely take a time, perhaps years-but that's just as long as it takes to make a good bottle of wine.