Every summer, harvest interns walk vineyard rows with clipboards, pens, clickers, and flagging tape. They count vines, then clusters, to estimate potential yields. If they’re at a premium estate winery where loss in productivity has large financial implications, they flag unhealthy vines and count out points on painstakingly crafted dot maps to mark the location of these vines. At the end of the harvest, the maps and notes are compiled into a binder and left in a vineyard office to collect dust. The data collected is frustratingly underutilized.
Until recently, the lack of a vineyard-specific application combining geographical mapping and data analytics made it difficult for wineries to track data beyond bulk statistics, such as the number of virus-infected vines or the number of non-producing vines. And without the geographical context of which vine was infected or non-producing, the data had little impact beyond yield estimation.
Now, a new software is bridging this gap, allowing vineyard managers to make data-informed decisions on irrigation, pruning, interplants, and more.
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our award-winning SevenFifty Daily Dispatch newsletter—delivered to your inbox every week.
Developing Sentinel Vine Manager
Seven years ago, Shawn DeMartino, the creator of Sentinel Vine Manager and director of Grace Family Vineyards, was an intern collecting data in Napa Valley. The estate that he worked for had put metal tags on every vine in their vineyard. The numbers on the tags correlated to data held in an Excel spreadsheet that showed when the vine was planted, on which rootstock, when it had been irrigated each year, if it yielded at a normal rate, and whether any tests had been run for grapevine trunk disease. The spreadsheet had to be used in conjunction with a dot map with each vine’s number.
The upkeep was extraordinarily time consuming and couldn’t be done from the vineyard—everything recorded in the vineyard had to be transferred into the spreadsheet later. Despite the limitations, DeMartino saw the benefits of tracking viruses, managing irrigation and replants, and farming for vine longevity. But if any other estates were going to have access to those benefits, the system needed to make life easier, not more difficult—so he dreamed up an entirely new system with Sentinel.
DeMartino knew two things when he started developing Sentinel: he was going to tie vine histories to mapped locations; and he was going to do it with smartphones. “We drive the equivalent of Ferraris on our phones every day,” says DeMartino. “We already have incredible software and yet we were doing all of this extremely detailed farming—hundreds of thousands of vines—with crayons and paper. Leveraging the technology we already had was essential.”
DeMartino began researching mapping software and GPS. He found that GPS, utilized for Google Maps, only provided accuracy to around six meters—not nearly precise enough for vineyard mapping. The solution came through DeMartino’s partner, Christian Sidak, who worked in software development for defense intelligence. Sidak worked with DeMartino to help leverage Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), a technology which uses a wider network of satellites to achieve sub-centimeter locational accuracy.
Having sourced GNSS receivers to provide vine location, DeMartino then partnered with a larger agricultural software company to develop the tech. While it seemed promising, the software wasn’t tailored to vineyards. Sidak told DeMartino that if he was going to develop a product, he needed to be in control of its functionality. “Shawn had been describing the issues he was dealing with,” says Sidak. “We debated different approaches. Ultimately, I left my position at the start of  and we put the pedal to the medal on making this a scalable product.”
“Tech talent like Christian doesn’t usually end up in the agricultural industry,” says DeMartino, “and our partnership of an elite software developer and someone with deep domain knowledge is the only way you could end up with a product so suited for this application. We’ve built the tool that everyone I’ve ever worked with has wanted, but not known they needed.”
Creating Vineyard-Specific Technology
Developing tech for vineyards comes with unique challenges. “First, we had to think about connectivity and networking,” explains Sidak. “With most mobile apps, you’re assuming a WiFi connection. That’s not true here. Vineyards often don’t have cell service. We had to develop the app to store local copies of maps that would then sync when you had service.”
As DeMartino and Sidak worked, the app and its accompanying equipment became concrete. An operator would need a handheld GNSS receiver, a holster, and a smartphone with two apps downloaded—Sentinel’s and one that worked in tandem with the receiver to augment location data. The first time an operator used a device was to map the vineyard. Holding the smartphone over a vine head, the operator dropped a point. Once a vineyard was entered, the app automatically geofenced each vine so that when the operator approached a vine, the device snapped to the vine’s record, telling you exactly which row you were in, what number vine you were standing in front of, and any data you’d input on that vine from the time it was planted.
Data input was configured to allow for individual producer needs. When Sidak onboards a producer, he walks them through the steps of creating their own drop-down list of options in the website application for block, scion material, rootstock, irrigation, and other elements. This way, they don’t have to select from a long list of options that don’t apply to them. With this information, a producer can select an entire block in mobile or desktop and assign it one rootstock or scion. Entry on a vine-by-vine level is only necessary for heterogeneous data, such as production and virus status.
At DeMartino’s request, Sidak included the option to take a photo of a vine within the app. If vineyard interns were unsure if a vine was virus-infected, they could take a picture to later show a vineyard manager and change the vine’s status if they had misidentified it.
Once mapping and data entry were built, the data analytics function was created. “The mobile app captures everything and then the desktop application lets you interrogate the data in a way that makes it actionable,” says Sidak. For example, if a producer has tracked grapevine red blotch disease (GRBD) and would like to see how fast it’s spreading, they can pull a report over a set amount of time and track the increase in the number of GRBD-infected vines. They can also compare this to the production status of those vines. While this can be pulled as a straight report, it can also be examined in map form, allowing a producer to see if GRBD is random or spreading from one point in the vineyard.
The final piece of the technology assists with actionability in the form of work orders. If there is a focal point from which GRBD is spreading and it is affecting production, those vines can be assigned to a certain vineyard steward within the app, and scheduled for removal. Once the work order is marked as complete, the map will automatically update those vine spots as misses. When a planting work order is completed, it’ll automatically update those spots to rootstock or young vine.
While Sentinel allows operators to map, track data, analyze data, and issue work orders within one application, what its users place value on differs.
Sentinel’s Value Proposition
The analytics are where DeMartino sees the value at Grace Family Vineyards. “Vineyards can be 10, 20, 30 years old and the heterogeneity increases every year,” he says. “Often people interplant and then you have rootstock and mature vines in the same block. Sentinel captures that granularity and you’re able to see where your declining old vine population is, track them, and treat them separately. Small actions make the difference between replanting at 20 years versus 30 years.”
“The gains in time savings and accuracy of data are massive,” says Isabelle Straka, the assistant winemaker for Kinsman Consulting, a consulting firm for boutique wineries that offers vineyard development services. Previously, Straka spent months creating dot maps in Excel, often with no certainty that the final map was 100 percent correct. “With Sentinel, I map it once, I’m sure it’s right, and if I want to see my number of producing vines over time, I can pull that report in two seconds. It’s the same for any other piece of information.”
Kathryn Green, the proprietor of Grace Family Vineyards, thinks the financial implications are key. “I come from a management consulting background, Jeremy [Kathryn’s husband] comes from a science background. When we entered the wine industry we realized that most information that was being collected was siloed,” explains Green. For the Greens, using concrete data to make decisions was essential. They were adamant that the costs associated with irrigation cycles, pruning, and spraying be backed up—not to penny pinch, but so that funds were applied intelligently to make the highest quality wines possible. “We can now farm for longevity without waste. Extending a vineyard’s lifespan by 10 years is hugely financially beneficial, without even touching on the quality implications.”
“The usability in the field is incredible,” says Jeremey Donnelly-Rutledge, who was an intern for Grace Family Vineyards last year. “The app doesn’t take up much space, it’s intuitive, and you don’t have hours of data entry to do at the end of the day … It won’t allow things like double entry for mapping. It’s set up so that if you try to map a second vine within 30 centimeters, it won’t allow it.”
“We can now farm for longevity without waste. Extending a vineyard’s lifespan by 10 years is hugely financially beneficial, without even touching on the quality implications.” – Kathryn Green, Grace Family Vineyards
Straka and Green say that their questions have been answered within two hours every time they’ve contacted Sidak and that he continues to deliver new features at a rapid pace. “A pick area feature just came out,” says Straka. “I can now draw a polygon in a vineyard. I don’t know how they’re doing crop estimates yet, but if I can see approximately how much fruit I’m anticipating from an area, it takes the guesswork out of my tank allocation.” Straka also mentions a new feature that would allow labs to automatically upload the results of virus tests to vines based on a barcode. “It’s like how ETS labs interfaces with VinTrace without manual input,” she says.
In addition to the features Straka mentions, Sidak is working on features related to crop estimation and cluster count tracking. Perhaps most importantly, “We are excited to unveil new features throughout the year related to foreign language support, particularly Spanish and French,” explains Sidak. With 78 percent of agricultural workers in the U.S. self-identifying as Hispanic, DeMartino and Sidak’s dedication to making the technology available in Spanish is key for the U.S. market.
The Cost of Sentinel Vineyard Manager
The cost of Sentinel is composed of two parts. The hardware consists of a $5,000 receiver, which can also be rented for $500 per month per receiver, while the software is priced on a case-by-case basis.
DeMartino estimates that one receiver will allow coverage for around 60 to 90 acres. “The mapping is the most intensive part,” he says. “You have to input every vine. After that you’re only manually updating vine status if there’s an unforeseen change in vine health. Otherwise, you can use operationalized work orders to change multiple vine statuses.”
Because each vineyard is so unique, the software has to be tailored to the needs of each site. “Unfortunately, we have to look at it case by case,” says Sidak. “It’s a monthly licensing fee that’s based on acreage, amount of cloud resources needed, and geography. Sometimes we have to put in new base stations. I’m working on debundling offerings to price to producer needs. Some people just want mapping. Others want the full mapping, analytics, and work order package.”
While Sentinel is a constantly improving piece of technology, the app can already meet several fundamental producer needs. The technology is lightweight, mobile, and intuitive to users with excellent on-call support. If new users are able to recognize cost savings and increased vineyard longevity due to data-driven decisions, this app is likely to see widespread uptake, especially with the launch of foreign language support giving the technology global relevancy.
Sign up for our award-winning newsletter
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.
Samantha Cole-Johnson is a Portland-based freelance wine writer, speaker, and educator. Her work has been featured in online and print publications, including JancisRobinson.com, GuildSomm, Wine & Spirits, and Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book. Sam holds the WSET Diploma and teaches WSET qualifications at Portland’s Wine and Spirit Archive.