RICHMOND — Virginia’s young and fast-growing wine industry is taking a good look at itself — from outer space.
Using satellite images, NASA scientists recently mapped vineyards across the commonwealth to take stock of an enterprise that bedeviled Thomas Jefferson and countless fellow Virginians before finally taking root about 40 years ago.
It’s an extraterrestrial take on terroir, and winemakers and industry groups are poring over it, hoping NASA’s bird’s-eye view will give them a better feel for where Virginia winemaking is — and where it should go.
“It’s quite amazing,” said Bill Tonkins, vineyard manager at Veritas Vineyard and Winery in Afton. “The technology now can identify a vineyard from many miles above in the air.”
In just the past few decades, winemaking has turned into a $750 million-a-year business that employs 4,700 workers in Virginia. The commonwealth has 3,500 acres devoted to wine grapes and needs to plant more to keep up with surging demand.
The maps produced by NASA show the location of those vineyards — something that is not always obvious from the address of a winery’s business office or tasting room. And that could help vintners decide where to plant more.
“You could technically know where the vineyard was located because of an address and a Zip code, but you really didn’t know where the actual field or vineyard was,” said Todd Haymore, Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry. “We not only know where they are now, so we have a better, more accurate count, but going forward, where these vineyards can go in the future.”
NASA teamed up with the state agriculture department and the Virginia Wine Board for the project, which used Earth observation satellites to plot the vineyards.
Vintners can combine that location data with information about the soil, slope of the land, angle of the sun, frost dates and so on to make a determination about where to plant new vineyards, Haymore said. It is a decision with little room for error, since setting up a vineyard can cost $12,000 to $16,000 an acre — not including the cost of the land, Haymore said.
“We have a better understanding of exactly where the current fruit is planted,” he said. “We know where those maximum returns are coming off of, which will give us a better sense of a way forward.”
NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton oversaw the study as part of an applied sciences program, which seeks to demonstrate practical benefits to NASA data. Another recent project was aimed at improving the efficiency of agricultural water usage in the state.
“This is a great example of using data we gather from space to benefit people here on our own planet,” said David E. Bowles, director of the research center.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced the project’s completion last week.
“The opportunity to couple this innovation with our diverse agriculture industry, one of the Commonwealth’s greatest economic assets, is exactly what we need to help build the new Virginia economy,” he said in a written statement.
Researchers used data beamed to Earth from the Landsat 8 satellite to determine where Virginia’s more than 250 vineyards are growing grapes. The scaffolding used to support grapevines “make nice lines” that can be distinguished from other crops, said Kenton Ross, a NASA science adviser.
“A few other things grow that way,” he said, noting that apple trees are also planted in rows, “but it’s a matter of scale, the width between the rows.”
Chris Blosser, general manager of Breaux Vineyards in Purcellville, expects the industry to get a boost from NASA’s data.
“It’s very generous of them to offer that to the Virginia wine industry,” he said. “It’s something using their existing assets, satellites and everything. I think it’s going to be very helpful in just really highlighting the literal growth of the industry.”
Annette Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Board’s marketing office, agreed, even though she wasn’t entirely clear on the technical nitty-gritty behind NASA’s mapping.
“I’m not a rocket scientist,” she said.