Marco Poggianella, founder and CEO of Resonant Technology, wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his commitment to sustainable farming initiatives. At the very least, he wears this commitment on his lapel. The rainbow-colored pin he sports is emblematic of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals: the 17 pillars with a 2030 deadline that serve as a blueprint for sustainability measures worldwide.
For that matter, he literally puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to sustainable winemaking: “I think it was Oscar Wilde who said you should never drink bad wine,” he says. “I like to have an extraordinary wine, of course, but today, I like more to drink a sustainable wine.”
Poggianella’s company, Resonant, is a force for helping wineries establish a commitment to sustainability. Resonant’s agriculture-based technology and products are approved for use in sustainable vine management, and are designed to improve resiliency in wine grapes particularly in the face of climate change. As a native Italian and physicist, Pogianella found the wine sector to be the ideal intersection of science and passion to which he could put his expertise to work.
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Recently, he spoke at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, Scotland, about how technology can address sustainability in agriculture to feed a planet that is rapidly approaching 10 billion citizens: “Initiatives like the Green New Deal that will push farmers to reduce the use of chemical fertilizer are important” he says, “but once that’s done … then what? It reduces yield. If I’m a farmer I don’t want to reduce yield. I want to feed the planet.”
VinePair spoke to Poggianella about the development of Resonant and its application and importance for the future of wine.
1. What was the impetus behind starting Resonant?
I spent the last 20 years of my life studying the connection between the microbiome and microorganisms in plants. Soil quality has a lot to do with the presence of microorganisms, fungi, and bacteria. Plants need macronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but microorganisms are the key for plants to be able to process these nutrients. My focus with Resonant was creating a better alliance — a better synergy — between plant roots and these microorganisms, as well as introducing new elements and new nutrients to the soil. I wanted to create an approach to this type of agriculture that has both a short-term and long-term vision because the growers need to have the best harvest possible. At the same time, it’s important to build, year-by-year, a better soil, which means a better future for them.
2. What led you to focus on the wine industry? Were wine grapes especially receptive to this technology?
As an Italian, wine is part of my tradition, and wine and food are essential in our culture. Wine is so important because if I remember all the milestones of my life, there was always wine to celebrate. As a scientist, I realized how difficult it could be in the future to continue to make great wine in the places it has always been made, and I felt a mission to help. Maybe other crops like corn, soybeans, or rice are easier to work with because they are more industrialized, and when you find a solution that works, you can just scale it. In vineyards, you have to understand the biodiversity of different vines and different varietals, and the challenge of finding solutions is greater.
3. How did you go about developing this technology?
Developing agricultural solutions is a matter of interpreting nature, which is sometimes hard to do because we are also part of that nature, and it can be difficult to see things in a clear perspective. In our studies, we’ve discovered that 35 to 40 percent of all the plants’ available energy, after photosynthesis, is given back to the soil. So then you have to ask, “Why? Why is this incredible force — instead of being entirely directed toward the leaves or fruit or vines — being put to use to enrich the soil?” This is called the microbial loop. We as human beings are more focused on other factors, such as yield, but the plants know what they need best, so they continue to feed the soil. Our goal was to interpret what the plants naturally do, and try to improve the system that’s already in place.
4. Can you explain how this technology works?
Our products work not so much to provide nutrients, like fertilizer does, but to create a type of stimulus and activity in the soil. It’s the difference between vitamins and probiotics, to put it in human terms. There are nutrients and microorganisms in the soil already; the challenge is how to best take advantage of what’s there. Resonant products stimulate the growth of secondary and tertiary roots and enable the plant on one hand, and the microorganisms in the soil on the other, to interact in a more symbiotic way. Plants that have been treated with Resonant products are able to better utilize water resources, even if they’re scarce, and access the nutrients in the soil. Then over time, the more you use the product, the more you start creating these increasingly complex and robust root systems. That itself contributes to adding more nutrients to the soil. So not only have you created a plant that’s more able to take advantage of the nutrients that are there, you’ve created a plant that is able to create more nutrients.
5. What role did climate change play in developing Resonant’s products?
I am an optimistic person, but it’s impossible to ignore that we are seeing the effects of climate change right now in the wine industry. In California last year, growers had massive problems with drought, heat stress, and so on. In Europe, we had frost after two months of super-warm conditions. All these events create a lot of stress in the vines; too much stress. And the result of that is they are not able to produce great grapes. The technology was developed exactly for this; to create a better resilience in the vines due to the action in the soil.
In the end, we want to create wine, but not just for this year — for years and years. Improving the resilience to the grape vines can help them to continue to exist in the places they currently grow. Sometimes, we joke about Swedish Amarone or Alaskan Cabernet. But if you speak with a scholar who is looking at climate change, this could actually be the future. So, the goal of this technology is to find a way to maintain these grape varieties where they grow now, facing the increasing challenge of climate change.
6. Were winemakers very receptive to this?
Drought definitely makes them receptive. There was a study from the National Academy of Sciences in 2020 that indicated that the wine industry is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. It’s easy to see the problem in viticulture with climate change, more so than other sectors. It’s also what makes terroir so important in winemaking, because the grapes are able to express different conditions so dramatically.
The first winemakers we approached seven years ago were very skeptical, but as a planet, we weren’t talking as much then about climate change and sustainability as we are now. In the first year, we didn’t have the best results, so we had to tailor the product and fine-tune. After six years, we’ve achieved great results with vineyards in Europe and in California, so now, it’s easier to speak about sustainability, reduction of chemical fertilizer, and climate change.
7. How are you able to measure the success of the technology and products you offer?
Unfortunately, last summer in California was the ultimate test as to whether we could help grow grapes without water. The results were devastating, which, as a scientist, is what you want. We had very clear, control-based experimentation, with certain blocks of vines treated with our products, and other blocks without. With the untreated block, the grapes turned into raisins, while with the treated block, we had incredibly consistent fruit. What happened in California and France last year was amazing if you approach viticulture from a sustainability science perspective; not so amazing if you’re in the business of making fine-wine grapes. But what we’re doing is trying to help these plants survive these conditions. When the vascular system of the vine is working well [but] gets too hot, the plant is still able to circulate nutrients, which are going to save the clusters, the foliage, and keep the canopy in place for shade. At the end of the day, that’s what these roots and all this microbial activity is doing; it’s creating a plant that’s a lot healthier. The fact that it has the potential to also create more output for winemakers and even a better tasting wine is a bonus.
8. For you and Resonant, what is the goal in terms of sustainability?
I think we have to fight to maintain our capacity to produce and improve and be better in the world in terms of sustainability, and sustainability is a word that has a lot of meaning. For me, it’s for sure the environment of today and of the future. For sure there’s a social aspect, to work to change behavior and reduce pollutants as much as possible. The third [and] maybe most important aspect of sustainability is economics-based. The farmer has to stay in business. Some of them have great profit margins, others less, and so we want to help everybody with the economics part — making great wine, continuing to help the environment, and helping with social factors. It’s a win-win-win situation.
When we first started developing these products, we’d called our company SOP — Save Our Planet — but that wasn’t necessarily the winemakers’ goals, and that is what caused some skepticism early in our project. When we became Resonant, we didn’t change the mission; it’s the same. It’s bigger than just the winemakers we are helping. I want my Amarone and my Cabernet, but I also want my great-grandson to have a chance to be able to have these in his future as well.