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Wireless: Tech CEO brings first-of-its-kind fermentation to UCD

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From page A1 | January 09, 2013 | Leave Comment

In another advance for innovative winemaking, students and faculty at UC Davis are now processing wine with the world’s first wireless fermentation system, thanks to a recently completed $3.5 million network designed, built and donated to the university by Silicon Valley semiconductor executive T.J. Rodgers.

Rodgers, a wine lover and winery owner, is founder, president and CEO of San Jose-based Cypress Semiconductor Corp. Now in its third generation of refinement, the initial assembly of custom-designed stainless steel fermentors was installed just in time for the winery’s first crush in 2010.

Since then, Rodgers and his crew of engineers and computer experts from Cypress Semiconductor have continued to fine-tune the innovative fermentation system to meet the needs of the campus’ two-year-old teaching and research winery, known for its environmental and technical sophistication.

“UC Davis is the foremost center for enology and viticulture in the world,” Rodgers said. “Our goal was to provide it with the most advanced winemaking equipment in the world.”

In December 2010, the 34,000-square-foot teaching and research winery received official LEED platinum certification — the highest environmental rating awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council. It is the first winery in the world to attain this level of certification. At the time of the winery’s completion, it was the highest scoring of any university LEED projects.

The new wireless fermentation network, now with 152 fermentors, puts the winery in a class of its own technologically, as well.

“This radically new fermentation system is unlike anything available at the moment to commercial or research wineries,” said professor Roger Boulton, the Stephen Sinclair Scott Endowed Chair in Enology.

“It equips us, for the first time, to perform reproducible fermentations with precise temperature control and uniform mixing, which is critically important for consistently producing quality wines.”

A passion for red

Rodgers remembered how he learned about winemaking. “I had a passion for red Burgundy, as well as degrees in chemistry and electrical engineering — but zero knowledge of winemaking — when I decided to plant our first pinot noir vineyard,” he said. “Professor Boulton at UC Davis took my calls to ask him questions about a paper of his I had read, and UC Davis graduates like John Kelly taught me how to make wine.

“When I had an opportunity to help the school that helped me, I took it.”

The 200-liter fermentors — now referred to as “TJs” in the winery — are individually equipped with automated temperature control, an automated system for pumping juice over grape skins when making red wines, and a sensor that monitors fermentation progress in degrees Brix — a measurement of sugar content.

Data from each fermentor is transmitted wirelessly to a nearby computer control room at a programmable ratio of up to once per minute and automatically graphed on a large monitor in the control room.

Rodgers’ $3.5 million investment in equipment and engineering is the most significant gift to the teaching and research winery since its construction. And it is a gift that has left faculty and staff in department of viticulture and enology still shaking their heads.

As plans for the new winery began to gel in 2009, Rodgers expressed interest in playing a philanthropic role in making the vision of the winery a reality.

“When he invited us to his office in 2009 to discuss the possibilities, we thought T.J. might have in mind a financial contribution or perhaps an in-kind equipment donation,” said professor and department chair David Block, the Ernest Gallo Endowed Chair in Viticulture and Enology.

“We were astounded when he laid out hand-drawn sketches of the fermentation system he had envisioned.”

But Rodgers didn’t stop there. As soon as the first generation of fermentors was ready, he and his staff accompanied them to UCD, where the Silicon Valley CEO could be found atop a ladder, connecting the fermentors into the winery system and advising winery staff and faculty on their proper use.

A team of Cypress Semiconductor engineers, including Mark Holst, Neel Karkhanis, Tom Bentson and Archana Yarlagadda, has continued to visit the winery to assist with installation and fine-tuning of the fermentors as the system has evolved during the past two years.

Rodgers, an electrical engineer with a doctorate from Stanford, fell in love with Burgundy wine when he was a graduate student. He and his wife, Valeta Massey, operate the Clos de la Tech winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, specializing in pinot noir. Wines made from grapes grown in the winery’s own vineyards carry a silicon chip embedded in wax on the neck of each bottle, representing the most successful chip that Cypress Semiconductor manufactured during that harvest year.

Wine research

Rodgers’ donation to the winery has equipped the teaching and research facility to process 50 separate grape lots, each fermenting in triplicate.

“That provides a wine research capacity that has no equal,” Boulton said. “With a 10- to 12-week experimental season each year, it’s essential that we be able to ferment grapes into wine without delay.”

Researchers can now undertake experiments involving many different vineyard sites to better understand how climate, soil, grape clone and viticultural practice interact to influence wine composition.

“The fermentors will play a central and vital role in helping us understand, in a way never before possible, how all viticulture research on grape cultivars, climate, and vineyard sites and practices is critically linked to research on wine flavor and chemistry,” Boulton said.

Thanks to this new technology, students are becoming familiar with real-time fermentation data in Web-based applications.

Rodgers also funded positions for two graduate students, who are now developing new fermentation sensors that will estimate yeast populations and color chemistry in the wine. The students are working under the direction of Professor Andre Knoesen in the department of electrical and computer wngineering.

“We are incredibly grateful to T.J. Rodgers and the Cypress Semiconductor team,” Boulton said. “These fermentors that we now are using for teaching and research will one day become an essential component of every commercial winery.”

He noted that Rodgers’ extraordinary gift for the winery epitomizes the broad-based private support that made the campus’s new winery, brewery and food-processing facility a reality. The building was constructed entirely through private contributions from more than 150 individuals, alumni, corporations and foundations.

— UC Davis News Service

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