Thorvald: The robotic future for eliminating mildew in the vineyard

Writing for Meininger’s, James Lawrence reports on a potential “game-changer for viticulture”: a robot that eliminates fungus from vineyards using ultraviolet (UV) lamps. Known as Thorvald, the prototype robot has been developed by a group of scientists and manufacturers from institutions including Cornell AgriTech, the University of Florida, and SAGA Robotics. 

Recent tests of UV lamps on strawberry plants and Chardonnay vineyards have produced convincing results that UV light can effectively treat “fungal diseases common to agriculture.” 

The UV project initially started back in 1991, but was brought to a halt due to the “irreparable damage [it did] to the plants.” However, the project resurfaced in 2010 when PhD student Aruppillai Suthparana demonstrated that the UV treatment did not harm plants when applied at night. 

Lawrence quotes David Gadoury, senior research associate in Cornell’s Department of Plant Pathology, who explains why this is the case: “These fungal pathogens have an inbuilt defence mechanism against naturally-occurring UV light – they use blue light emitted during the day to repair their cell damage. But at night this defence collapses. So only a small dose of UV light is needed, which is effective in killing single-cell organisms, but doesn’t harm the crops.”

Equipped with up to 30 UV lamps, Thorvald is “almost totally autonomous,” can work at an “operating speed [of] five miles per hour,” and “can cover 30 hectares in one evening.” The Thorvald team expects the “market to react very positively” once the robots can be produced on a larger scale. According to Gadoury, “this is the future.”

Should there be a natural wine certification?

In his article for Meininger’s, Woolf discusses the regulation of natural wine. It is a largely contested topic. Those who oppose regulation, such as Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene, argue that natural wine cannot be codified as “it is about this thing called ‘spirit’.” On the other hand, advocates for natural wine certification argue that it is precisely because of this “vague definition” and the wide “possibility for abuse” that regulation is necessary.

Among those pushing for natural wine certification is Angiolino Maule, president of the natural winemakers organisation VinNatur. Woolf describes how VinNatur is different to any other natural wine organisation in that “it undertakes stringent checks on its members’ wines, winemaking and farming methods.” This rightly raises the question of whether a system “based on laboratory analysis and regulation [can] ever coexist comfortably in the world of minimal intervention winemaking?”

According to Maule, it certainly can. In 2016 VinNatur adopted its charter which strictly lays out how members must make their wine. For example, “only spontaneous fermentation is allowed, filtration below five microns for white and rosé wines or 10 microns for red wines is forbidden, [and fining] of any sort is not permitted.” VinNatur aims to randomly test the wine of around 40% of its members for pesticide residues and offers up to three chances for producers to “explain why residues have been found in their wines.” Not only does VinNatur strictly regulate its members, but it also “co-funds, coordinates and participates in pioneering research programs,” with a current focus on “learning how to make consistently good natural wines.”

However, not everyone agrees with VinNatur’s approach. The introduction of the charter caused a number of members to leave, including Frank Cornelissen. Woolf quotes Cornelissen who states how “many natural wine people…like to work in a very intuitive way. The principle of introducing a protocol just didn’t fit any more.” Despite the discord caused by the charter, Maule adamantly stands by it, asking, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, why do you run away?” Read more here.

The Sustainable Wines of Great Britain Certification Scheme

WineGB’s Sustainable Wines of Great Britain (SWGB) working group was formed last year by 30 founding members and is sponsored by leading retailers such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. Representing about 40% of total UK hectarage, the founding members recognised the wine industry’s collective responsibility to drive environmental sustainability and created the SWGB certification scheme. According to WineGB’s website, the key objectives of the sustainability initiative are:

  •  “Protect our soils, conserve our environment, and promote biodiversity in our vineyards
  •  Manage our vineyards sustainably, with minimal pesticide and fertiliser inputs
  • Use water wisely, and protect our watercourses from contamination
  • Minimise our energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, both in the vineyard and the winery
  • Be economically viable in the long term
  • Grow outstanding grapes and produce excellent wine for our customers”

Reporting for The Drinks Business, Phoebe French shares how the first vineyards and wineries to be accredited with the SWGB scheme will be announced next month. This accreditation will permit them to use the SWGB certification mark and will indicate that the member operates according to the WineGB Sustainability Guidelines. These guidelines “detail best practice, set minimum standards and list prohibited practices.” The guidelines will be reviewed every year and the accredited wineries will be reaudited every three years.

French quotes SWGB chairman, Chris Foss, who says he hopes that “most, if not all” vineyards in the UK will sign up to the certification scheme. Read more here.

The Future of Wine Forum 2020 

Earlier this week we announced the 2020 Future of Wine Forum which will be taking place later this year on 26-27 November. The 2020 forum will be held virtually, hosted on an interactive state-of-the-art online platform and will be free to attend.

We’ll be bringing together hundreds of wine industry professionals from across the globe to debate the biggest wine sustainability issues, providing a unique learning and networking opportunity. 

Key topics to be addressed include: 

  • Wine sustainability definitions, standards and certifications;
  • Labels, transparency and wine marketing;
  • The future of wine packaging, logistics and shipping;
  • Planning for climate adaptation and mitigation in the vineyard;
  • Circular approaches and profitability;
  • Social sustainability, and;
  • Equality, diversity and inclusion in the wine industry. 

To learn more about the conference, visit www.futurewineforum.com.

Registration is currently open, so be sure to sign up here and secure your online spot (spaces are limited!)