Going on the Record

By Riggs Fulmer

Most of us who love wine also enjoy the cerebral aspect of its consumption.  We like to think about the wood regimen, if any, the weather at harvest, the particular cépage.  Geeking out on vine-age, yeasts, skin contact and residual sugar content becomes almost second-nature once we get far enough along in our oenophilia. But there is one aspect of the art and science of winemaking, absolutely essential to the consistent production of fine wine, that most of us completely overlook: record-keeping.

It is through the accumulation of carefully recorded, empirical observation that the vigneron fully comes to know the characteristics of the sites, grapes, yeasts and wood employed in the winemaking process. Vintners don’t just feel that a certain block is going to deliver the best fruit, they observe—and record—that it does so, vintage after vintage. They also may note that a certain slope produces grapes with higher acidity, and that the highest vines on another slope ripen a week and a half earlier than those nearer the valley floor. And when, in a particularly hot year, things go a bit haywire, they ideally have years of accumulated data from which to refer to calculate precisely how askew the numbers are.

As you might expect, the practice of keeping wine records goes back about as far as our cultivation of the vine. The famous Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), Roman officer and encyclopedist, devoted an entire volume of his “Natural History” to the vine.

In more modern times, it was the French who were at the forefront of an empirical approach to vinous record keeping. After the Revolution, there was an increase in the amount of poor-quality wines being produced in that country, and Napoléon commissioned Jean-Antoine Chaptal (whose name you might recognize from the process of chaptalization, the adding of sugar to wines to increase their alcoholic body) to investigate the matter. Chaptal felt that a general lack of scientific knowledge was the main culprit, and in 1801 he published his compendium on the subject, the “Traité théorique et pratique sur la culture de la vigne.” Later that century the famous Louis Pasteur also studied fermentation and winemaking, adding further to the body of work on the subject.

Here in Oregon, one analogue to Chaptal and Pasteur is the skilled entrepreneur Hector Samkow. He honed his skills during a former life with a trucking agency, where he noted that easy access to detailed information allowed for much more streamlined trans-shipment of freight. Moving north to Oregon, he began to pursue a passion for wine, interning at JHGJHG winery, where he developed a hands-on knowledge of exactly what sort of data were necessary to the success of a winery.

Bringing together his two areas of expertise, he developed a brilliantly intuitive new database system, which he called Innovative Vinology Information System, or IVIS, founding the company just over five years ago. 

From the beginning, it was important that IVIS be, as were its developers, a fully integrated part of the Oregon wine scene. Other databases were being developed in California and Minnesota, but IVIS’ proximity to the Oregon industry allowed for far more fine-tuned congruence with specific needs. 

I recently sat down with Hector’s partner and progeny, Mecal Samkow, to gain some insight into their intriguing product.

“All in all, IVIS is a portrait of Oregon winemakers and their assistants,” she said.  “We’ve compiled the many techniques of some of the best winemakers in the world to preserve and report their masterpieces. It’s been a really interesting angle into the world where science and art meet in the cellar.”

She went on to point out that one of the most important aspects of IVIS is the “plasticity” of its intuitive interfaces, which are designed to process information in a “lexicographic” manner, which, she says, is the fundamental way our brains process info.  What this means with regards to IVIS is that any aspect of data necessary is available from any other; for instance, when examining a particular lot, one can see to what extent it is represented in vessel, the varietals present, oak regimen, etc. 

Moving from this into the level of particular bottling, one can then see the same range of information. This design allows a “three-dimensional” access to information, rather than the often time-consuming sedimentary collation of data that would obtain in hard copy—or most other database software, for that matter.

“You can make great wine without keeping any records—we all know winemakers [for whom] it’s just their intuition at play, but if they want to replicate what they’ve done, it’s really good to have [detailed] information,” Mecal noted.

“When we first install IVIS we always try to make it fit with the way wineries are already doing things, which is why the flexibility of it is so great. We don’t just want to alter the way things are done, [but to] enhance the culture and encourage efficient record keeping.”

IVIS seems typically Oregonian in its unified, local approach, tracking everything from vineyard scouting, to yeast addition, to precise cépage information on a bottle-to-bottle level—this is what makes it so potentially powerful to a winemaker. Rather than spending hours figuring out the cryptic wrinkles of a database not specifically keyed to an individual’s needs, a winemaker using IVIS has the benefit of an interface tailored to exactly what she will need in the vineyard, cellar, bottling line, and eventually, at point of sale.

“IVIS is a tool that relieves winemakers from the otherwise overwhelming task of not only doing the work but recording the details,” Mecal said.

“There are many complicated elements of wine production, no matter how down to earth it is—especially when winemakers start increasing their volume, and it gets harder to capture and retrieve the important data [that informs] their final blends, and thus ultimately how the consumer experiences the finished wine.” 

One important aspect of this record keeping, particularly in this age of the often-stifling stewardship of the OLCC, as well as federal requirements such as the Bioterrorism Act, is that of compliance. 

Detailed records allow a winery to show that it has acted in full accord with this morass of rules and regulations, which, though merely designed to protect the consumer, are often somewhat daunting when paired with the already massive responsibilities of winemaking itself.

IVIS boasts an impressive list of clients, including NW Wine Co., Bethel Heights, Penner-Ash, Chehalem and Ken Wright Cellars.  Speaking of IVIS, Wright says, “The real value of IVIS is the incredible savings of time, both in and out of harvest, when you need information NOW, and the amazing detail in the data.”

It certainly appears that the need for detailed information gathering will only increase as we forge on into the 21st century.

The transformation of grape to wine is one fraught with many a potential misstep, which can be reduced to the greatest extent possible by in-depth, easily accessible data.  It is a great boon for those making wine here in the Northwest that we have a homegrown, intuitive, accessible software design that removes as much of the hassle of data collation from the broad shoulders of the winemaker.

If the brightness and openness of its promulgators are any indication, IVIS will continue to grow and innovate to the same extent that the local wine industry will. And, as Oregon takes its rightful place among the great viticultural regions of the world, this spirit of innovation tied to solid tradition will grow ever more central to the industry’s efforts.

Those interested in IVIS can contact the company at 503-922-3300, or by accessing www.ivissoftware.com .

Riggs Fulmer is a language-loving wine writer and musician. He resides in Portland.

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