Winemaker Ryan Kunde doesn’t have to go high tech, but why wouldn’t he?
In 2011, in an Armenian cave, researchers discovered what might be the world’s oldest winery. The press, storage vessels, drinking cups, and vines, skins, and seeds scattered throughout the cave are thought to be 6,100 years old.
In 2011, Ryan Kunde launched his first winery in what might be the world’s most ordinary barn with tools that are utterly new.
Suffice it to say that a lot has changed in 6,100 years.
Electricity is, of course, a start. But at Kunde’s DRNK winery in Sebastopol, aerial drones and Arduino microcontrollers are also part of the mix. Welcome to 21st century winemaking, where high tech doesn’t have to be utilized, but it seems a rotten shame not to.
Kunde’s surname might be familiar. His family is in their fifth generation of wine production at their sustainable 700-acre facility in Kenwood, having celebrated their 100th anniversary back in 2004.
Striking out on his own, it’s only natural that Kunde would want to use the freshest techniques in winemaking to complement the oldest techniques: walking the vineyards and feeling the heat of the ferment.
We’re starting fresh; everything that we’re doing with our wines is starting fresh. It will take time, but that’s part of it. Ryan Kunde
Kunde, who finished his schooling at UC Davis and did the Southern Hemisphere harvest before “getting the bug,” he says, while working at a boutique crush facility, was at Maker Faire in San Mateo when former Wired editor Chris Anderson took the stage to discuss aerial drones.
“I heard Chris talk about how he put a cell phone in a plane and turned it into a drone, getting aerial imagery from his phone,” Kunde says. “I ended up spending the next year and a half in my garage putting planes together and learning how to fly them.”
The Kunde family estate has a research plot, and Ryan was trying out the effects of biochar, putting carbon into the ground, he says, so that “microbes could slowly digest it over decades.” He sent one of his handmade airplanes up to take a look.
“The variation on that one field was just tremendous,” he remembers. “You’re trying to glean some scientific evidence that this is a good way to sequester carbon. It was incredibly impactful to see that and, after that, I just knew how important it was to get my drones above the vineyards.
“This is nothing new,” Kunde says. “Growers have been using this technology for decades; they’ve been hiring planes to get imagery. But it can be expensive and the logistics daunting. With a drone, you can launch it every day if you want.”
DRNK doesn’t yet have its own vines growing onsite, so sources its Pinot, Chardonnay, Malbec, Pinot Gris, and Viognier grapes from nearby Russian River sites as well as the Kunde estate and other organic providers in Sonoma County. Like technologists, Kunde refers to his winery as a “startup.”
He explains: “We’re starting fresh; everything that we’re doing with our wines is starting fresh. It will take time, but that’s part of it. Since we source fruit from growers, we get to work with the growers, learn about their vineyards, and build our offerings around what we think is the best wine for us at that time, whether it’s a Russian River blend or a broader North Coast blend. Having to put it all together at once is fun.”
The first bottling isn’t yet done, but Kunde expects his Pinots will retail at restaurants and bottle shops for $52; the North Coast blend, for $28-$45.
And then there’s the Arduino. A microcontroller invented in Italy and named for a restaurant by an artist who wanted to make his sculptures move, the Arduino is an extremely inexpensive computer board. Kunde uses his to track the fermentation heat of his must.
“I’m using a temperature probe and an Arduino that logs it over time,” he says, “and you can see the accumulated heat that’s trapped in that cap. Just as there’s a Growing Degree Day idea—a way of having some typical measurement for the climate that you’re in—being able to have the same type of language to talk about your fermentation is really helpful.
“I’m doing it because I can, not because I have to,” Kunde says. “You can peek over the side and stick your hand into to feel the heat—but if you can quantify it, why wouldn’t you?”
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