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New tech for vineyards on trial

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Ontario's wine makers and grape growers nervously are watching the weather, fearing this year's harvest literally could be nipped in the bud by an unusually cold winter.

“We've gotten very close to the critical temperatures for bud survival for vines for next year's crop,” noted Matthew Speck, the viticulturist at his family's vineyard and wine-making operation near St. Catharines in the heart of Ontario's best-known wine region.

He said this winter reminds him of 2014-15, when his winery lost 30 percent of its yield.

Speck noted what others in the industry know well—that temperatures are vitally important and can vary a great deal from place to place, even within a single property.

But this winter has been harsh for all of southern Ontario, including the Niagara region, where Speck helps run the Henry of Pelham Family Estate winery operation, founded by his parents in 1984.

“We've hovered, a few nights, very close to where some damage may or may not appear—right on that threshold,” he remarked.

“So it has been nerve-racking, those nights.”

This winter, Speck is trying out a new cutting-edge sensor and monitoring system.

The solar-powered devices—about the size of a large cellphone—have GPS locators in them and a connection to a new wireless “internet of things” service that Bell is preparing to roll out commercially.

The system is being developed through a partnership between Shenzhen-based hardware manufacturer Huawei, Bell Canada, and Toronto-based BeWhere Holdings, Inc., which specializes in asset-tracking systems.

Together, they have equipped Henry of Pelham with new monitoring technology that Speck thinks could be a big improvement because its sensors easily are moved as needed—rather than placed in fixed locations like traditional sensors that can't easily be moved.

“It allows me to make better, more precise decisions,” Speck said.

One of those decisions is whether to start up the huge wind machines that Henry of Pelham and others across Ontario use to warm their vines.

If conditions are right, the machines can raise temperatures on the ground by four or five degrees C—enough to prevent cold damage to the grape buds.

But Speck said his tower-mounted propellers cost his operation hundreds of dollars per hour to run, so he needs to know how to optimize their use.

“You may not want to run them on the whole vineyard," Speck explained. ”It might be one section or a low-lying area that's colder than another.

“And different varieties are sensitive at different temperatures.”

In general, Ontario's grape growers get nervous if temperatures get close to minus-20

—degrees C since whole crops of even hardy varieties can be wiped out if temperatures fall too low below freezing.

Tom O'Brien, the founder and president of Cooper's Hawk Winery and Restaurants near Kingsville, Ont., hadn't heard about the Pelham trial being conducted about 350 km to the east but said he can “absolutely” see its potential.

He would like to find a cost-effective alternative to his older generation of weather-monitoring system.

“My machine is old," he admitted. ”I have it programmed so that if it hits a certain pre-set number, like minus-16, it calls me and gives me a warning that it's cold.

“But I would love to have more technology.”

At the Pelham operation, Speck said he's still running his old monitoring system in parallel to the trial system, but can't yet say which one's better.

“It has been back and forth," he remarked. "They're doing quite a bit of work on the background of it . . . so I haven't had much of an opportunity to do a direct comparison.”

In addition, Speck said he doesn't yet know how much the system will cost once the trial is over. And, no matter what, there's only so much that he can do about the weather—even with those big wind machines.

“They always help [but] nothing's as good as a mild winter,” he reasoned.

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