Winemakers and farmers will tell you the most important element they apply to their crops is their shadow.

Scheid Vineyards in Monterey County, Calif., has cast those shadows on the information superhighway with unique in-field video cameras and software that afford wine grape customers an excellent vantage point in the vineyard.

Wireless video will never replace a shadow, a hand lens, or a refractometer, but it will give winemakers and growers a more constant presence in the vineyard.

Alfred “Al” Scheid's legacy is as both a survivor and pioneer since he started Scheid Vineyards in 1972. He was an early pioneer in the coastal premium wine grape varietal development phase and has survived at least a couple of wine grape oversupply eras that weeded out many.

His tenacity has resulted in Scheid evolving into one of the largest independent wine grape growers in the U.S. and one of the largest Central Coast wine processors.

Scheid continues to be out front following the development of VitWatch in 2002, a proprietary wireless program that provides information to clients including block identification, vines per acre, rootstock, irrigation, spacing, weather information including degree days, and much more.

“Based on the information provided to our clients by VitWatch, some wineries say they don't have that much information on their own vineyards outside their own doors,” said Scott Scheid, Al's son, and now president of the company his father founded more than three decades ago.

A “sizzle” component of VitWatch is field video cameras, so called ‘mobile vit cams’ or ‘PTZ’ cameras which pan, tilt, and zoom. Moved to vineyards on a trailer with an integral battery and solar panel, the camera's antenna connects to Scheid's dedicated 802.11b high-speed wireless network. By Internet connection, the client controls the live camera to watch, for example, thinning or pruning in progress. The camera can zoom into individual vines hundreds of yards away.

The VitWatch network covers Scheid's 70-mile stretch of vineyards, from the northernmost vineyard in Soledad to the southernmost vines in Hames Valley.

“We encourage our clients to know everything occurring in their blocks of fruit, warts and all,” according to Kurt Gollnick, Scheid's senior vice-president and chief operating officer. “VitWatch is an extension of our hands-on approach and allows winemakers access to vineyard information 24-hours a day so they can have a greater say in the farming practices being employed on their fruit.”

A winery-based software program that's under development by Scheid is called CellarWatch. When launched this fall, clients will receive exact status reports on their wine making plus the latest laboratory analyses.

Wine grape production

The Scheid portfolio includes grapes, wine, and custom processing, including premium wine grapes, bulk wines, custom-made wines, custom crushing, storage and finishing, juicing, and bottling.

Today 25 wine grape varieties are grown on the 4,500-acre Scheid operation including: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling in cooler locations; Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot in central Monterey County; and Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Sirah in the warmer southern locations.

Wine grapes at Scheid's are segregated into 300 20-acre blocks within 12 large vineyard properties. Virtually all of the grapes are grown for 60 clients including Francis Ford Coppola, Don Sebastiani and Sons, and Castle Rock Winery. Scheid crushes 2 percent for its own premium wine line.

Vineyards are trellised with either alternating bilateral cordons or vertical shoot positioning. The varietals are grafted on a wide variety of rootstock, depending on soil and water, including 5BB, 1103 P, and 5C, and to a lesser degree 110 R and Freedom.

For powdery mildew fungus control, various combinations of Stylet-Oil and the products Rally, Pristine, Flint, and occasionally Quintec are used, plus wettable and dust sulfurs. “Powdery mildew is the No. 1 disease we treat for,” said Tony Stephen, Scheid's director of wine and grape sales.

A less frequent disease problem is botrytis bunch rot. Vanguard is the primary product used at Scheid's for botrytis control.

Pest pressure includes Pacific spider mites, vine mealybug, and orange tortrix. For mite control magnesium chloride is applied to dirt roads to reduce dust. Since dust stresses the vines and mites target stressed vines, the dust product significantly reduces mite populations.

Groundwater at the rate of about one-acre-foot per acre per season is applied through aboveground drip irrigation. Overhead sprinklers provide protection from spring frost.

Barley is planted as a cover crop in every other row. This alternate-row planting reduces tilling costs and dust, plus allows around-the-clock access to the vineyard. In 2007, Pacific Gold mustard was planted with barley to control nematodes.

Scheid winery

From 2001 to 2004, Scheid-grown grapes were custom crushed at seven California wineries to meet the specifications of Scheid's clients. Scheid used wineries located from the north in Livermore (Alameda County) to the south in Templeton (San Luis Obispo County).

In tune with the changing wine grape industry, Scheid entered the winemaking business in 2005 with a state-of-the-art, 42,000 square foot, $20 million custom crush winery located just off the 101 Highway in the Salinas Valley.

“We have luxury level wine making in a large, commercial winery,” Stephen said. “We use small estate processes on a large, commercial scale.”

The first phase included a 12,000-ton crush capacity. Full build-out will approach 30,000 tons.

“Our clients asked us to build the winery,” says Scott Scheid. “We were writing multi-year wine contracts and we felt the need to control our own destiny” by controlling the process from the vineyard to the crush to the winemaking process.

Making wine locally where the grapes were grown made good sense; a better option than trucking the grapes to a winery as far away as the North Coast.

“Trucking an open load of grapes for six hours is not good for creating quality wine,” Scheid explains. “Having a truck with wine grapes stuck in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge in the afternoon can create grape quality problems.”

The winery was designed by Scheid staff, engineers from Axiom Engineers, Monterey and Napa, Calif., and by the Belli Architectural Group, Salinas. Phase 1 of the winery was rated at a 100-ton-per-hour crush rate.

Key features of the winery include a raised truck-dumping area where hand and machine harvested white grapes are sent directly to presses without pumping.

Another selling point is the so-called “Scheid Slide” built specifically for Scheid by JV Northwest, Canby, Ore. The slide is a red fermenter tank with a sloped bottom and a large, pneumatic-controlled door that when opened empties the tank quickly, completely, and without manual labor. The winery currently has 45 slides to handle one to four truckloads each (25, 50, 75, or 100 tons).

The Scheid Slide caught the attention of Constellation Brands, the largest wine company in the world, headquartered in Fairport, N.Y. According to Scheid, Constellation was so impressed with the slide that the company ordered almost identical, but slightly larger tanks from JV Northwest.

The winery handles 30,000 tons of grapes for crush and fermentation (2 million cases) and 15,000 tons for juicing (1 million cases) annually.

The Phase “1.5” expansion of the winery opened for the 2006 harvest including a reserve winery for smaller customers and Scheid's own branded wine, plus more tanks to hold wine for aging and blending. Phase 2, completed for the 2007 harvest, more than doubled crush capacity to 30,000 tons plus more fermentation and storage tanks, and a second fruit receiving hopper.

Phase 3 depends on the future wine market. The general plan includes a bottling and case goods warehouse with two bottling lines and storage for at least 500,000 cases and a 60,000 square-foot barrel building to store 20,000 barrels.

“There's no immediate plan to build Phase 3, but we planned for the site to be a complete production facility. It really depends on which way the wine business takes off,” Stephen said.

Today the Scheid winery's total tank capacity is about seven million gallons, a significant amount for the Central Coast, Scheid noted. “This filled a need for high-quality crush capacity on the Central Coast.”

Scheid Vineyard's corporate office is located in Salinas.

Future view

Scott Scheid is always looking for opportunities on the horizon. He believes information included in VitWatch could help one day draw the interest of wine connoisseurs and boost sales.

“Wine labels containing informational chips and detailed wine information have been discussed by the wine industry,” Scheid noted. “People could get specific wine and grape details on their personal digital assistants or PDAs from labels as they walk down the aisle at the grocery store. This opens the door to a huge opportunity for the wine industry.”

The key is to accumulate such data now so it's available for future use, Scheid says.