UC Davis, which runs a highly regarded program on viticulture and winemaking, first approached Mr. Rodgers in March seeking a $1 million donation. Instead, the CEO— who sells about 1,000 cases a year of his own Pinot Noir (Clos de la Tech) and has designed his own hydraulic-powered press—invited a pair of professors to visit his winery in Woodside. He showed them the fermenters he had designed and offered to develop a new generation for the university. Roger Boulton, a professor of viticulture and enology, and Andrew Waterhouse, the department's chair, were immediately struck by the potential time savings presented by the hydraulic-aided presses. Mr. Waterhouse says he thought to himself, “This could work.”
Mr. Rodgers then decided to go further. Having tried and failed three times on his own to construct a programmable version of a device called a brix meter, which measures the sugar level in fermenting wine, Mr. Rodgers turned to some Cypress engineers and asked them to build a prototype brix sensor using the company's chips and other technology. He turned to another team to figure out how to relay the measurements wirelessly. Within a week, the teams had prototypes. Mr. Rodgers, who sometimes sketches out designs while working on a floating Styrofoam desk in a hot tub, drew schematics for the new brix sensors and tanks. Over the next few months, he periodically sent 20-plus page PDF files to the UC Davis professors detailing the progress, including reports on successful and failed tests. UC David now has 152 fermenters like the ones shown above.
Mr. Rodgers, who says he will have spent precisely $1.003 million to develop the fermenters, plus additional time from Cypress engineers, is already hard at work on his next winemaking project: a spectrophotometer that uses light to measure the presence of different compounds in wine. Currently, winemakers have to send samples of their wine to labs to run expensive tests to get these results. Mr. Rodgers is working with students to develop a spectrophotometer that can sit in wine, take real-time readings and transmit the results wirelessly.