The wine industry is constantly faced with new trends, challenges, and the pressure to stay ahead of the competition. With that, comes the opportunity to innovate.
Each year Wine Industry Advisor recognizes five wine industry innovators—not just for their impressive ingenuity or technical advances—but because of how their product and/or service betters the North American wine industry.
Tom Shapland didn’t grow up in the wine industry, but he said plants were always an interest of his, and that once he began attending UC Davis he “found grapevines calling me. I just really find them to be beautiful.”
His first product at Tule Technologies, based in Davis, California, was a spinoff of his doctoral work, that evolved into an easy-to-use sensor that can read grapevines and determine their irrigation needs.
Tule Vision was released in 2020, emerging just as severe drought spread across the western U.S. Its timing couldn’t have better— because of the drought and an ever-increasing manpower shortage worsened by the COVID pandemic.
Its effectiveness and flexibility have earned the company a 2021 WINnovation Award.
Shapland, the founder and CEO, said farmers in recent years have depended on a pressure chamber, a cumbersome and, what he calls, a dangerous instrument that is often used incorrectly. “It’s time-consuming,” he adds. “The grower can only take so many readings.”
Shapland’s product is a camera app that takes a photo of the entire vine canopy and determines whether a plant needs water. “They just press a button,” he says. “It’s as simple as that.”
Further evolution of the product has added to its value. With so many grape growers pinched for time and labor, Shapland said they sought answers to how to mount a phone on an ATV and get clear pictures. It was, he said, “a really challenging problem.”
But Tule Technologies, which blends a staff of nine full-timers and four part-timers, was able to solve that issue. Now customers can affix the phone to the front of their ATVs and “drive around doing all the things that they went out to the ranch to do already [while] passively collecting readings.”
Data is collected and analyzed for the individual taking the readings and can be made available to anyone in the organization with access to the mobile app—as well as Shapland’s staff.
It is, he said, a big step forward in the development of Tule Vision, where customers used to walk up to each plant for a photo. “What we found,” he says, “is that people are stretched so thin on all the things they have to do, they never found the time to take all the pictures they wanted.”
Customers pay for Tule Vision by the acre with an annual subscription; the price per acre decreases as they add more acres.
Shapland says it’s the customers that make his job so enjoyable.
“Product development is fun because the grape industry is such a good industry to work in,” he says. “These growers are good people who choose to be in the industry, and so the way product development works, you create something, release it to the world, and then the people who use it find things you didn’t expect.
“The fun part of my job is talking to customers, finding out what’s working and what isn’t,” he continues. “And in dry years like this, they’re using our product more, they’re logging in more, and we’re talking to them a lot more.”
All WINnovation Award winners will be exhibited at Wine Industry Network’s WINExpo at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on December 2, 2021, where they will also receive their official award and highlighted in the program guide. Register here.