A biotech innovator develops a new way to lower costs for small wineries and reduce water usage across the industry

A biochemical engineer by training, Vijay Singh spent decades working with pharmaceutical industry bioreactors in New Jersey. When he retired early, he decided to experiment with home winemaking. He quickly learned that winemaking requires extensive manual labor, scrubbing and washing. Quality wine demands spotless tanks, pumps, hoses and floors, and all of that demands a lot of water.

“I’m quite lazy. I don’t like to do things that are just tedious,” said Singh, laughing. He asked himself: What if a winery could reduce the time and effort devoted to those tasks—and conserve water simultaneously?

His answer has led to a new product, in trial this harvest at more than 15 wineries in the United States and Spain. Called GOfermentor, it involves fermenting wine in a disposable plastic bag. The device aims to make it easier for small winemakers to get started and help large producers make small lots, while dramatically cutting back water use in the process.

One of the more than 20 patents Singh developed during his career is the Wave Bioreactor, which replaced hard-to-sterilize tanks and stirrers for mixing vaccines, antibodies and other cell cultures with disposable plastic bags on rocking platforms.

GOfermentor builds on that idea of trading vats for portable and disposable components. The device consists of a reusable rigid base; a control panel for monitoring temperatures, logging data and scheduling punch-downs; and a single-use, flexible, biodegradable plastic liner for either a 1-ton or 2-ton batch.

The liner has two completely separate chambers—after harvest, rather than dumping crushed grapes into a vat, the winemaker places them into a chemically inert chamber. During red wine fermentation, carbon dioxide pushes skins and other solids up to form a cap atop the juice. Winemakers usually punch the cap down or pump the juice over the cap to break it up and submerge the solids.

To replace manual punch-downs, the GOfermentor gradually inflates the liner’s second chamber, a blue nylon bag. As it expands, the CO2 in the fermentation chamber is vented, the liquid is pushed up through the cap and that cap is squeezed, breaking it up. The bag is then deflated, and the chunks of wet skins settle back into the liquid.

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