Plumas County computer science students experience state-of-the-art integration of technology with agriculture at Palmaz Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Photos submitted

Field Trip applies computer science to agriculture

During a field trip to the Napa Valley on Sept. 13, students are treated to non-alcoholic wines paired with appropriate snacks during a lecture on using technology in agriculture.

We don’t often think of agriculture and computer science in the same breath, but on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 10 computer science students from Indian Valley, Quincy and Chester saw first hand how the two go together.

Napa Valley vintner and Genesee Ranch owner Christian Palmaz hosted the Plumas County students at the Palmaz Vineyards in Napa Valley to observe the application of computer science in agriculture — specifically wine making.

“It was the best field trip I have ever been on. It inspired me to pursue my dream as a computer programmer,” said high school junior Cameron Scully.

Upon their arrival, students were greeted by Palmaz and seated inside one of the winery’s tasting rooms. At each setting were two non-alcoholic wines produced on-site in honor of the family’s youngest members.

The wine, paired with an array of cheeses, chocolates, dried fruits and nuts made for a refreshing snack while Palmaz delivered a 50-minute presentation on innovation and the application of computer science at the vineyard (similar to those he has given in the U.C. Davis Viticulture program).

The focus of the presentation was the creation and development of the vineyards’ unique Fermentation Intelligent Logic Control System (FILCS), more commonly referred to as “Felix.” Felix assists the wine-making team in the monitoring the fermentation process by providing winemakers a granular view of what’s going on inside the fermentation tanks.

During the presentation, Palmaz and the students discussed the use of linear and cubic regression models to develop the algorithms that drive Felix’s operations. Palmaz also shared stories that highlighted the trials of innovation (which included some late night garage-science experiments).

“I loved Christian’s story about using a soda bottle in his garage to help work out why his algorithms were not working, but I really appreciated how tangible he made computer science. His operation is very impressive, but each piece was done by a person, and all of our students are capable of doing what he did,” said teacher Johnny Stafford.

Along with an in-depth look at Felix, Palmaz gave the students a more concise overview of the “cave” an 18-story complex inside Mt. George that is barely visible on approach. The cave’s design facilitates a gravity-flow system that not only reduces turbulence in the winemaking process, but also helps preserve delicate molecular structures developed during the wine’s aging process.

The wine isn’t the only benefactor of the gravity-flow design, all wastewater used in the process flows downward to the facility’s own water treatment center where it is recycled and used for irrigation the following season.

On the subject of irrigation, students were also introduced to the VIGOR program. VIGOR uses multi-spectral infrared imaging to deliver tailored irrigation solutions to individual vines, resulting in both efficient water usage and a more consistent ripening across the vineyard.

“Christian, as an innovator, inspired students today. His presentation and tour provided a genuine learning experience for our young people. He demonstrated what can be achieved when elements of mathematics, biology, chemistry, computer science and the arts are blended together to create something distinctly unique,” said IVA director Ryan Schramel.

Following the presentation, Palmaz led students on an hour-long adventure in the facility, beginning of course with Felix. Students were led to a balcony that sits atop the “dome.” Below them were two levels of fermentation tanks and above them a dome that caps the cave. As students lined the edge of the balcony observing the area, Christian using his iPhone, summoned Felix.

There was an audible gasp from the students as the dome above them instantly populated with images, scatter plots and other measurements necessary to the winemakers. Students then descended the various levels of the cave following the same path as the wine, seeing where the wines are barreled, aged and tested. Students even learned about the unique role of coopers and stuck their noses in barrels constructed from 350-year-old French oak trees.

“The trip was amazing,” said eighth-grader Kaidyn Holland.