Friday, December 1, 2000

Palm computers turn data into wine


By Steve Niles

Typically when I consider the integration of Palm computing into the enterprise, I imagine a cubicle-filled corporate office with HotSync cradles on every desk. However, many of the employees at a company called Stimson Lane don't have cubicles. Nor do they have desks. Their workplace is outdoors, among the vast rows of grapevines filling their numerous vineyards, like the one pictured in Figure A.


The vineyards of Stimson Lane aren't your typical business environment. (click for larger image)

Stimson Lane operates 4,500 acres of vineyards in Washington, with contracts for grapes on another 12,000 acres. The company also has vineyards in California, Europe, and soon, Australia. You might be familiar with some of their brands, such as Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Snoqualmie, and Domaine Ste. Michelle, as well as Villa Mt. Eden and Conn Creek wines. Stimson Lane is one of the top ten producers of premium wines in the United States, on the list with Beringer, Mondavi, and Kendall-Jackson in terms of both quality and volume.

Eric Wylie is an agricultural engineer at Stimson Lane's Columbia Crest vineyard in Paterson, WA. The vineyard is pictured in Figure B.


Stimson Lane's Columbia Crest vineyard looks out over the Columbia River. (click for larger image)

Wylie is in charge of the vineyard's computer and data handling as well as field matters like irrigation scheduling. In fact, currently, Wylie and his team are hard at work conducting some irrigation experiments, testing a variety of strategies at various points throughout the vineyard in order to determine which method gets the best results. He found it a welcome relief to tear himself away from one of the more labor-intensive aspects of these experiments, hole digging, in order to talk to me about Stimson Lanes' successful integration of Palm computing into their business.

Old fashioned data collection

A great tasting wine like Stimson Lanes' Columbia Crest doesn't come along by chance. An enormous amount of work is required to create just the right balance of growing conditions and timing in order to produce the perfect grape. Some things cannot be controlled. What the French call the terroir, the natural conditions like climate, soil, and landscape that effect the biology of the vinestock and thus the composition of the grape, cannot be changed. However, there's an old aphorism that says, "Great wine is made in the vineyard." It's a matter of debate, but many argue the role of the grower in the field is just as important, if not more so, than that of the winemaker.