Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen for the Al

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So Scholasch and Payen are Frenchmen who are well on their way to revolutionizing the art of making wine, and perhaps agriculture more broadly. They however have faced years of reactionary opposition and general inertia in the wine making community. No good deed goes unpunished in this wicked world, but I for one hope that these two guys become incredibly wealthy and give their skeptics something to cry about through the best sort of revenge- living well.

Wired profiled Scholasch and Payen in 2012 in an article titled the Vine Nerds. Scholasch and Payen are French ex-pats who met in California. Scholasch had worked in vineyards in Napa, France and Chile and came to feel like a scientist trapped in a profession of artists. Scholasch had an unusual desire to improve the process of making wine, which apparently verges on the blasphemous in some circles. Techniques developed in 12th Century France represent the apex of agricultural technology you see, and anyone trying to update them is something of a public menace. A mutual friend introduced Scholasch to Payen, another French ex-pat. Payen holds a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley. As a graduate student Payen designed a novel micro-biosensor. They teamed up to form the Fruition Sciences company, which installs sap sensors to provide real-time data on crops, in this case grapes. The technology allows wine makers to give their vines just the right amount of water precisely when needed- a substantial improvement over tasting dirt, spitting it out, and irrigating fields early and (too) often.

You can read their bios here and how the process works here. Basically their process allows wine makers to make better wine while using only a fraction of the water typically employed.

Some wine makers gave Scholasch and Payen a shot, and became believers. From the Vine Nerds:

Austin Peterson, is one of Fruition’s most vocal supporters and attests to changes the sensor arrays can produce. ‘Before, irrigation management was basically done by our vineyard foreman looking at next week’s weather forecast and at leaves that were starting to fold or tendrils that were drying,’ Peterson says. ‘But visual cues can be misleading. As we started to see the data, it started to explain some things.’

Before becoming a convert, Peterson needed to see proof. In 2007 he divided Ovid’s 15-acre property in half, using the visual method on one side, sensors on the other. Following traditional visual cues led to a regimen of shallow irrigations, which required more water and resulted in unintended side effects, like shriveled grapes and elevated alcohol levels. It also may have helped slow the ripening process and delay the harvest, which is always risky in Northern California, where early autumn rains can destroy a crop in a matter of days. Meanwhile, data gathered from the sensors dictated a near-opposite approach: fewer, deeper irrigations, primarily later in the season. After two years, the result was substantial water savings and earlier harvests. For Peterson, the experiment shed light on how profoundly irrigation affects fruit quality as well as a wine’s flavors and bouquet. ‘It was like going from having an undergraduate degree in something to a PhD, where you have a deep understanding of why vines behave the way they do’ Peterson says. ‘As a winemaker, you understand different flavors. But now you start to understand why the differences exist.’

So it turns out that wine makers have been over-irrigating their vineyards in Napa for decades and producing lower rated wine as a result. One client interviewed by Wired stated that they had dropped their water use from 36-64 gallons per vine to 0-10 gallons. They reckoned this would save them 5.8 million gallons of water and produce better wine in the process. Project that out across California, and it gets to something like a potential savings of 9.1 billion gallons of water per growing season.

Did I mention that the Southwest United States is experiencing a huge drought? It looks something like this (color = bad, dark = worse):

Agricultural technologies that help you get by with less water might come in handy about now, especially in California. So you make much better use of an increasingly scarce resource to produce a better product. Better still, this technology is branching out beyond wine to increase the productivity of other sectors of agriculture. Scholasch and Payen are just two of the most recent entrepreneurs in a long line that have repeatedly thwarted Malthusians and neo-Malthusians through the driving force of voluntary exchange.

The process of updating agriculture sounds almost as frustrating as education reform. After an enthusiastic embrace of the technology by an expert in rice cultivation, Wired noted Scholasch’s reaction:

Scholasch lowers his eyes and shakes his head. ‘The first sap-flow sensors were tested in the ’80s. What we have in place was usable in the early ’90s—and look, it’s taken 20 years to start using it,’ he says, then gives a quick smile, betraying a glimmer of hope. ‘But it’s very rewarding to get recognition from peers you respect. It’s an accreditation.’

Hang in there guys- and remember the motto of the Economist “to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” No one ever said it would be easy, but the difficulty of your struggle will only make your eventual triumph all the more flavorful- like your wine, it will get better with age.




4 Responses to Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen for the Al

  1. Greg Forster says:

    This is why Americans are right to despise France. All the good French move here.

    Another very worthy Al nomination! I shall have to put considerable effort in simply to avoid humiliation.

  2. matthewladner says:

    Thanks! You mean all the good ones except the ones who sneak around in underground tunnels fixing things right?

  3. Greg Forster says:

    How do you know those guys aren’t over here in the underground tunnels right now?

  4. matthewladner says:

    Good point-I don’t!

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