From Computers to Cabernet
by John Gagnon
For 1968 alumnus Townsend (Tom) Porter, 2007 was a very good year.This vintner, new to the trade, bottled his first wine that December. Two years in the making, it was a fruitful occasion, for Porter savors wine—from its preparation to its afterglow.
“The culture that surrounds wine is very interesting to me,” he says. “We get together, have dinner, and share wine together. Wine creates a warmth in interpersonal relationships that I find very attractive.”
If he treasures the fellowship, he cannot describe the taste. “English is not very well suited to describe what we smell and taste. You hear all the fancy descriptions for wine—like pencil-box or leather. I’m not a connoisseur. I try to make wine that tastes a particular way, but as you get older, your palate isn’t nearly as good. Younger people have a much better palate, and generally women have a better palate.”
He is on firmer ground when he makes wine. In wine, truth, the sage says. In wine, science, Porter says—for he adds a considerable dose of engineering to the art of making wine.
Porter bought a vineyard in Napa Valley after a long and noteworthy career in industry. “We want to bring something new to the table,” Porter says of the endeavor. He means both the process and the product. He calls his vineyard and winery “a little bit of a science project,” where computer systems are as important an ingredient as grapes.
A native of Adrian, Michigan, Porter decided when he was fourteen that he would be an electrical engineer. “That was an early commitment as a child. My goal at that time was actually to become an inventor.” He succeeded. At IBM, he led a team of three engineers who invented the three-and-a-half-inch floppy disk, his most-cherished invention among several. Porter retired as executive vice president and chief technology officer of Seagate Technology, the digital storage giant (55,000 employees, $11 billion annual revenue), where he directed the work of four thousand engineers and scientists.
Now he applies his inventiveness to growing grapes and making wine. “It’s fascinating because it’s difficult to make an outstanding wine,” he says. “There is an old saying, ‘Wine starts in the vineyard,’ but you can, in fact, affect the flavor pretty dramatically by how you handle it. You can make a good set of grapes into a bad wine pretty easily.”
For forty years while in industry, he and his wife, Beverly, enamored of the agrarian culture, routinely traveled to Napa Valley. Twenty years ago the notion of owning a vineyard took root. “I fulfilled the dream here a couple years ago,” he says. He bought twenty hilly, secluded acres (in the Coombsville area four miles east of the city of Napa), with fifteen acres in vines, mostly cabernet. “I’m kind of a red wine bigot.”
A vineyard in hand, the next order of business was to build a winery. “An unusual winery,” he allows. He just bored a hole into a hill: 500 feet long, with some side tunnels, a total of 17,000 square feet. It’s like a computerized root cellar, filled with sensors for temperature and humidity and the like.
Ideally the temperature in a winery should be around fifty-five to sixty degrees. “Cooling is a challenge—and expensive—when you build above ground.” He doesn’t need air–conditioning. The cave stays essentially at 59 degrees year-round. Temperatures in the valley dip to 55 degrees at night, even in the summertime, so he does what he calls “night-air cooling—pulling in the cool air at night; shutting it down during the day.” The goal is to use as little energy as possible to cool. “We try to hold the temperature in a two-degree range, which is quite unusual.”
Engineering Grape Solutions
The unique doesn’t stop there. “We’ve helped design some equipment to treat the grapes a little differently than other folks have treated them. When you’re trying to make a good, high-quality red wine, with deep, rich flavors, the thing you usually do is leave the grapes hang on the vine for a long time. For making red wine, the berries have actually started to desiccate a little bit. And, of course, not every berry does it at the same rate. So, before you get most of the cluster berries where you want them, you’ve got a few in there that have ‘gone raisin.’ The challenge has been—how do you separate the small raisin grapes from the lush, plump grapes?” He designed and built a shaker table that does that. “We are the first in Napa to use that technique.”
This whole business is for a patient person. “Plant a new vine in year one, three years later you’ll get your first grapes. They really don’t make good wine, so you throw those away. The fourth year, you get some to make a wine that is modest in quality. By the fifth year, you get decent wine. So, if you take those fifth-year grapes, you process them into wine, normally you will allow them to stay in the barrel, for red wine, anywhere from one year to eighteen months. Maybe even two years. Then you will bottle and leave them in bottle for six months or another year. So the return on investment cycle—from the time we plant until you actually have a commercial product to sell—is somewhere around seven to eight years. ”
From his industry days, he’s accustomed to the long haul. “Yes,” he says, “but the problem is I don’t have as many years left. Consequently, I bought a vineyard that has fifteen-year-old vines.”
Each fall yields a harvest of about forty-five tons of grapes. A ton produces 130 gallons of finished wine. The wine goes into barrels that are made of French oak, which “impart a particular flavor.” They are sixty-gallon barrels. At full production, they’ll use five hundred. Each costs $1,000. “Barrel making is a whole other science.”
Water is probably the biggest and most unpredictable variable in this operation. His winery is five hundred feet above the valley floor. The soil is rocky and dry. There’s no rainfall from the end of April to November, so he has to irrigate with well water. He uses another computerized system that drips a gallon of water an hour on each plant, with five hours of irrigation spread over three to four weeks.
Porter has put sensors in forty locations in the vineyard to measure temperature, humidity, soil moisture, and leaf wetness. He harvests each of these areas—“microcosms, if you will”—and makes small, separate batches of wine. “We trace the variables all the way through, so at the end, when we actually get wine, we’ve got it separated by location in the vineyard. Then we can begin to determine—tease apart—the things that are driving high-quality wine.”
The Family of Wine and Humankind
The business is called the Porter Family Vineyard. His daughter, Heather, is learning the wine making; her husband, Steven Wolfe, handled the cave construction and oversees the control systems and computers; Porter’s son, Tim, handles the database development, accounting, and marketing. The previous owner is teaching them the “farming side”—the viticulture—and a professional winemaker is helping with the production side.
Porter reaffirms that some of his processes are unusual. “Yes, to do this much,” he says. “There are bits and pieces of it that are being done around the valley, but nobody’s tied it all together as an overall system.”
He is unafraid of failure.
“When you’re working on the edge of technology, failures are common. I used to tell people who worked with me—if you’re not failing occasionally, you’re not pushing hard enough.”
In any event he knows the ingredients of success from his industry days. “It’s mostly hard work,” he asserts.
As a leader in industry, Porter says he had “good fortune financially.”
One offshoot: a family foundation that helped build an orphanage in Tanzania. At the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, it was a project for the high-minded. It opened in 2006, and it is a foray against AIDS.
“It’s mind-boggling,” he says. “AIDS is far worse than we’re led to believe. It’s hollowing out the society. There are old people and children. The people in the middle are dying. And so there are a lot of orphans.”
He and Beverly met a woman whose three-bedroom home was crammed with 109 orphans, street kids, and abused kids—“the list goes on.”
So the Porters helped build a 15,000-square-foot refuge, purchased two new vehicles, and continue to support the operational budget.
“Gratifying?” he is asked.
“Brings a tear to the eye?”
“Even to think about it.”
The youngsters, age 2 to 16, are content with little. “We spent three days with them. They’re happy. They’re bright. They’re excited about life in spite of all the hardship. Moving into the orphanage, their eyes were so big, you go, ‘Oh!’”
The reward of helping is the fruit of a different vine.