Paul Skinner, owner of a St.Helena-based vineyard management and consulting firm, has sued E. & J. Gallo Winery, accusing the wine giant of patent infringement.
Skinner, a scientist and inventor, filed patents in the early 2000s for “automatic, precision agriculture” technology, according to the suit, filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. Skinner’s invention, a plant growing system, uses external data and sensors to “accurately control the dispensing of water” as well as fungicides, fertilizers and insecticides, according to the patent filing.
The invention would optimize crop yield and water usage, the lawsuit says.
Upon patenting the technology, Skinner marketed it to growers and winemakers – including to Gallo, which “repeatedly declined” to license the inventions for their use, according to the lawsuit. Skinner alleges that Gallo circumvented Skinner in lieu of obtaining proper licensing, and instead went on to build its own version of variable rate drip irrigation (VRDI) systems instead, thus infringing on his patents.
Asked to comment on the lawsuit, Gallo responded with a statement. “E. & J. Gallo Winery has a long history of respecting and protecting intellectual property rights,” the winery said, adding that it would not comment on pending legal matters.
Corey Johanningmeier, an attorney for Skinner’s consulting firm, Vineyard Investigations, said he had no additional comment on the case at this time.
Gallo, the world’s largest family-owned winery, owns several properties in Napa, including Louis M. Martini Winery, Stagecoach Vineyard and William Hill Winery.
Skinner had the idea for the VRDI systems in 2000 while on a cross country flight, according to the suit. The complaint notes that he wanted to design “a ‘smart’ drip irrigation system that would be controlled by an advanced system of sensing technology” to ultimately optimize crop yield and quality.
The report describes several interactions between Skinner’s consulting firm, Vineyard Investigations, and Gallo, in which the VRDI technology was presented to the winery.
The suit seeks “a mandatory future royalty payable on each and every future sale by Gallo of grapes grown using technology” infringing on Skinner’s relevant patents.
Gallo has known of the patents since at least April of 2010, the suit alleges.
The complaint also alleges that Gallo went on to publish “papers and articles” about the technology. Gallo has a few papers and presentations concerning VRDI available on the internet, including a presentation given by one of its research scientists in 2017 at the California Plant and Soil Conference and a conference paper partially authored by two of its employees the same year. Skinner alleges the wine distributor as “taking credit for and championing” the benefits of his inventions.
The suit alleges Skinner contacted the Modesto-based Gallo several times to discuss the existing patents after observing their use of VRDI systems to no avail.