Chip icon TJ Rodgers turns his tech to winemaking

November 9, 2011

Silicon Valley icon TJ Rodgers is applying his knack for engineering to create “the New World’s” best Pinot Noir. This week he gave a handful of reporters a tour of his Clos de la Tech winery in the Santa Cruz mountains — and a taste of his wares.

Rodgers fell in love with wine after buying a mixed crate of bottles during graduate school at Stanford. Soon after, he traveled to Burgundy, France to briefly learn from the masters before returning to the United States to found chipmaker Cypress Semiconductor.

The best of Rodgers’ three vineyards produces only 100 cases a year — about four bottles for each member of his club. All of Clos de la Tech’s bottles are fittingly decorated with a microchip sealed in wax.

“The guys on my mailing list are a who’s who of Silicon Valley,” he said.

Rodgers’ vineyards are rigged with devices built by Cypress engineers to measure sugar content, liquid pressure and other critical factors in the winemaking process.

A rustic brick building in the middle of the winery surrounding his home in Woodside, California is decked out inside with high-tech metal containers he designed with radio chips beaming data from instruments to a nearby laptop displaying rows of graphs.

He spends his free time perusing research papers on winemaking and chemistry and takes an engineer’s empirical approach to growing, harvesting and fermenting his Pinot Noir grapes.

Every year, Rodgers conducts experiments at his vineyards to isolate the effects of changes in the timing of harvests and different amounts of water and sunlight.

But he also makes sure not to ride rough-shod over centuries of experience.

His grapes are crushed the traditional way — by his wife Valeta’s feet, instead of with a machine. Rodgers also refuses to let any of his wine flow through mechanized pumps, instead using a forklift to raise containers and let gravity push his wine into oak barrels.

The French have picked up a lot about winemaking, even if it took them centuries, Rodgers explains to us, before leading us back to his house to sample the fruits of his and Valeta’s work.

(Photos by author)

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