Napa Valley vineyard experiment begins to bear fruit

April 27, 2011 7:41:33 PM PDT
In Napa County, a vineyard experiment has begun to bear fruit. It uses a process called biomimmicry that imitates nature. It could lead to a day when growers irrigate crops from thin air.

It is a vineyard where the proverbial old vines rule. They're age 65 now, and hardly close to retirement, despite being gnarled, craggly, and wrinkled. As Matt Ashby, who manages vineyards in Napa County for Mondavi, likes to say, they're admirable.

"They're resilient," says Ashby. They don't stress out."

Ashby is a guy who plants new vines every year, trying to be green about it, and to cut costs. Last summer, he tried an experiment using contraptions called waterboxxes. They cool at night, pull moisture from the air, and use it to irrigate young plants. It's the same process as when cold liquid in a glass condenses water from the atmosphere. The results have been surprisingly good.

The waterboxxes are not expensive, costing roughly $25 each. Imagine $25 to irrigate a vine to maturity. But there is another advantage to them, they make the vines work for a living.

"Work to go get the water, work to go get those nutrients, and it's got to work to produce fruit," says Ashby. "When we have a vine that has to work to produce fruit, what we get is a more concentrated, more complexly flavored wine."

Waterboxxes are the brain-children of Pieter Hoff, a Dutchman who visited the vineyard last year. Back then, he told ABC7 he can grow crops in the Sahara desert, even.

"There is a lot of water in the atmosphere," said Hoff. "Actually, what people forget is that all the water that you see in rivers traveled though the air."

As part of the Mondavi experiment, Ashby took acorns from old oak trees and used waterboxxes to grow new ones. They are working, too.

"In an area where we don't have any water, we're trying to get some trees established in a really, cheap, easy way, the waterboxx really fits perfectly," says Ashby.

Imagine that, a resource agriculture could use just about anywhere, and it's all right there in surprisingly wet air. In a field of old vines, a new trick.


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