During his visit to Chile, Carlos Gómez, PhD in Medical and Electrical Engineering from MIT, found a place that combined two of his main motivations: applied science and wine production.
Professionals from Viña Concha y Toro’s Center for Research and Innovation had the opportunity to speak with him, discuss these two fields, and share experiences about the transition towards a smart wine industry.
Gómez, who has led big data projects on digital platforms, also produces wine on a small scale as a hobby at his home in California, USA. This pastime, together with his professional training, led him to become interested in the CRI. He also had the opportunity to visit the tourist center in Pirque, where he tasted wines from the Marques de Casa Concha line.
The expert in data science, technological products and algorithmic models—who led Netflix’s recommendation system, among other achievements—explains the impact of the digital transformation as a new approach to business, given that it is changing the way in which companies operate.
In what ways can the use of big data, artificial intelligence and other digital transformation tools change the way in which a company works?
On the one hand, I think that both science and technology help a lot, but they are two different things. Science focuses on trying to understand the reasons why things are the way they are, and it’s very useful to generate truly innovative and fundamental ideas. Technology helps you to optimize and improve processes. Often, when there is a major impact in an industry, these two areas go hand in hand.
With regard to wine, some opportunities have arisen to improve its design. Now the parameters of the winemaking process can be better understood, that these parameters produce different aromatic and chemical compounds, and then how these compounds correspond to the experience of people who enjoy that wine.
In the end, the digital transformation contributes to the entire wine production process, from business logistics, to winemaking and consumer marketing strategies.
What effects of this digital transformation do you see, not only in how companies are structured, but also how their audiences interact with them?
Ideally, what should happen is that the rate at which products are improved should increase, and as such consumers will be happy and able to enjoy the best products. On the other hand, competition is going to become more interesting, as a greater number of companies are going to use this type of practices to improve things.
In addition, the wine industry still has some very artisanal practices, with a lot of tradition. I think that it’s positive to support artisan winemakers, and help them to rapidly identify and understand problems and opportunities. That interaction could be extremely useful.
Do you think that all industries have the potential to be smart?
Yes, I definitely think so, because a large part of that is enabling more people within the organization to get involved in the improvement of the business and the product using the scientific method, instead of having a few people, winemakers in this case, being the only visionaries. It also helps to reduce the amount of time required to identify what works and what doesn’t, because it enables more rapid feedback.
In Viña Concha y Toro, the digital transformation is being led by the Center for Research and Innovation. What qualities do you think that the teams spearheading these changes should have?
Based on my experience, the most important thing is that there shouldn’t be any ego issues. They have to be extremely collaborative, invite the entire team and the company as a whole to contribute ideas, and work together to develop the product improvements.
They also have to enjoy continuously questioning any assumption. In general, the most basic hypotheses often end up being either not so correct, or more complicated than initially thought. Once this has been understood, many opportunities for improvement present themselves.
In reality, everything comes down to teamwork, and using the scientific method to understand your products, your business and your clients in order to improve little by little.
The CRI’s objectives are in line with this trend, above all through the Smart Wine Industry Strategic Program. The research carried out on this issue aims to apply new technological tools to optimize wine production in the most efficient way possible. This not only enables human error to be eliminated, but it also provides comprehensive information in real time about winemaking processes.
This is known as big data, information on a large scale that can be analyzed and modeled to achieve greater knowledge of procedures, as well as being based on hard data.
The science behind wine
Carlos carries out his own experiments in his personal wine cellar in California. He has spent more than 14 years producing wine on a small scale, trying different grape varieties and winemaking techniques.
His interest in winemaking started from a young age, when he would visit tequila distilleries with his father in Mexico, where he is from, to gain a deeper understanding of the tequila production process. “I have always found the combination between artisanal processes and science interesting,” he explains.
After moving to the United States, he found it difficult to find good quality tequila, and switched to drinking beer and wine.
With the knowledge of yeast that he had gained during his PhD in biophysics, he started to make beer, but quickly became bored of this hobby. “Making a drinkable beer is very easy, very simple. So I decided to start making wine, and I found that it was much more complicated and much more sensitive,” notes Carlos.
The difficulties that he had were evident: “For example, I lost several harvests that I tried to process to make wine, either because they turned to vinegar due to certain bacterial infections, or because they didn’t have the right sulfur level, which caused some bad smells.”
“In part, I think that it is because you don’t cook the ingredients when you start, you can’t control exactly what you put in. Rather, you harvest the grapes and you have to work with what you have. They already have their acidity level, certain organisms, etc.”
With all of the experience that you have gained in 14 years of winemaking, what do you prefer for your wine cellar, industrial or artisanal processes?
Artisanal processes, but with science. So it won’t be big data, it will be small data.