Features & Columns

Winemakers in Silicon Valley HANDS-ON: Jane Mika-Haynie and her husband, Sheldon, balance engineering techniques with more intuitive approaches to grape growing and winemakin Photograph by Jamie Soja

A Scientific

Lightheart Cellars is a backyard business, like a number of wineries in south Santa Clara Valley. Its wines can be found at nearby Rocca's Market in San Martin or on the menu at some area restaurants. Haynie eschews chemical pesticides and fertilizers in favor of a more sustainable approach that gives the fields a messier but more natural look. Chevy the cat prowls the vines to chase away rodents.

Haynie started tinkering with winemaking only a few years ago before deciding to make it a business to foster during retirement with his wife, Jane Mika-Haynie.

The couple, less than a decade ago, moved from a ranch in rural New Hampshire to the South Bay for work—process engineering for him, nursing for her. They set up shop in rural San Martin, planting their quarter-acre vineyard in 2008, fiddling around with winemaking the next year and establishing Lightheart Cellars as a business enterprise in 2010.

Like many of his peers in the South County Wine Association, Haynie balances his engineering mind-set with a feeling for the more visceral side of winemaking. While calculating measurable quantities, like water-to-soil ratios and chemistry of the final libation, Haynie makes a point of touching each vine on a regular basis, even in vineyards he manages for others.

"Winemaking is a combination of simple agriculture, simple chemistry and a lot of art," he says between pours from behind the counter in his patio tasting enclosure. "Some of it's science, some of it's intuition, but it's the science that helps you not screw up too bad."

In a lineup of award-winning and decidedly well-made wines, Haynie examines the chemistry of each in order to distill some insight about what they have in common that makes them so delicious. Maybe there's a way to replicate that process to make good wines more consistently, relying less on subjectivities like taste and more on repeatable steps.

"Science reduces the error," Haynie notes.

Unlike wine giants like Gallo, family-run wineries don't have the luxury of buying state-of-the-art measurement and monitoring systems to track moisture levels, study the soil quality and figure out which varietal grows best in a given patch of earth. Smaller wineries must be creative.

Haynie brainstorms a DIY approach with his friend Slater. Haynie's background in systems engineering coupled with Slater's experience in micromachining makes for a comprehensive approach—the macro meeting the micro perspective.

"We're learning how to be real farmers, who are true engineers," Slater says. "Real farmers, they're not afraid of anything. I still get hung up on the Silicon Valley mentality, like thinking I have to buy a thing to fix something. But farmers, they just make do. They're the real engineers. They can fix any old problem with a skinny nail or an old tire—whatever's lying around."

Working the land and learning from the lifelong farmers around him have enhanced Slater's engineering outlook, he says. He applies the renewed perspective every day.

The U.S. Geological Survey hangs on to soil maps for the entire country, so you can look up the makeup of soil to see what crops do well in a region, Slater explains. You can't figure out how much water's there, though. For that, you need a sensor down in the dirt that tells you exactly the moisture level. Haynie and Slater envision creating a system that uses cellphone communication technologies to broadcast soil-moisture levels to a shared server to monitor. The sensors would transmit signals, ping-ponging data to each other in a huge semiautonomous net, Slater explains.

They can't control the wind, but they can control irrigation, which affects the quality of the crop. Slater wants to team up with researchers at San Jose State University to turn that vision into a reality.

Haynie has another plan—to figure out the region's frost zones. The idea taps into his expertise in process engineering. Almost every year, even in these sunny climes, the frost comes. If grape vines push out their green shoots even a few days too soon, the frost burns them off.

Different grapes bud at different times. Figuring out the temperature variations in specific frost zones could help viticulturists figure out almost to the day when to plant and to the mile where to do it.

"All of what we know is about the varietals themselves," Slater says. "We know all about the grapes, but less about the land here."

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4