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Paging Vintage 2005

September 2008
 
by Suzanne Gannon
 
 
rfid radio frequency identification
 
Coglin Cellars uses the Kodak Traceless system to prevent counterfeiting of its wines (above). Kodak's nano-particles are invisible to the naked eye and can be applied to bottles in various ways.
 
    HIGHLIGHTS
     

     
  • Radio frequency identification enables winemakers to track the temperatures and locations of their bottles.
     
  • Providers say RFID deters counterfeiters from selling fake versions.
     
  • Technology has been especially appealing to makers of fine wines who seek to uphold their reputations.
Eric Vogt distinctly recalls a conversation he had with Corinne Mentzelopoulos of Château Margaux in June 2006. He had asked her to name the greatest challenges confronting her business.

According to Vogt, Mentzelopoulos, the daughter of Andre Mentzelopoulos, who was known as the "Greek of Medoc" and widely credited with revitalizing the château in the late 1970s, replied: "We have worked so hard in the vineyards to make the perfect grape and to produce the perfect bottle of wine, and then we send it off into the global distribution chain, and we don't know how it's treated, how it's served, and who the consumers are."

Mentzelopoulos's concerns set Vogt's wheels turning, and a few months later, he hatched an idea for a new business that would offer vintners the ability to remotely monitor the handling of their wines once they left the winery loading dock and disappeared into the abyss of the worldwide distribution chain.

rfid radio frequency identification
Vogt began consulting with an expert in radio frequency identification (RFID), and less than a year later, in January 2007, he unveiled eProvenance, a multi-part system consisting of a sensor inserted in the wine case that reads the temperature three times daily, a bottle tag that is discreetly mounted with epoxy inside the punt of the bottle, a special tamper-deterring neck seal embedded with an invisible code on the bottle's capsule, and an eProvenance authenticator (right), a hand-held tool that reads the code on the neck seal, enabling retailers and auctioneers to confirm provenance. The components on each bottle correspond to one another and are accessible to winery clients via a high-speed, password-protected, web-based data interface.

"My intention is to very quickly become the global standard," said Vogt, a wine enthusiast and Francophile who divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux. He already has filed five patents, including several for new, related devices currently in the pipeline.

To gain traction for eProvenance, Vogt began his assault on Bordeaux and Burgundy, where he believed that conservative vintners, though hard to crack, would lend great credibility to his product once they embraced it. He now has 15 clients, and in the last few months, he has taken his roadshow to Napa and Sonoma, where five producers currently are considering his proposal.

Vogt said that most of the resistance he has encountered to date comes from winemakers who are wary of putting such detailed information in the hands of consumers for fear of a backlash against their brands. He said he counters this reluctance by explaining that as producers of consumer products, they should take every opportunity available to confirm the quality and proper handling of their wines.

The cost of the system varies based upon the combination of components a client chooses to purchase. Equipment set-up at the winery costs about $10,000, while the temperature sensors cost about $22 per case. In addition, eProvenance charges $1,000 per month for a subscription to the online database. Punt tags and neck seals, according to Vogt, are less than $1 per bottle.

Among wine producers, the desire for keener shipment tracking and greater transparency in shipping conditions is nothing new. But the boom in wine consumption, particularly in counterfeiting hotbeds like Asia, has fueled concerns about mass-market wine fraud, which in turn has led to the development of a handful of new technologies with wine industry applications, some of which incorporate RFID.

rfid radio frequency identification
 
Bordeaux, France-based eProvenance incorporates radio frequency identification in the punt of a wine bottle. The device makes it possible to track such bottles during distribution.
You could defy CSI

Last year, Rochester, N.Y.-based Kodak introduced its Kodak Traceless System, an anti-counterfeiting solution in which nano-particles, which are too small for the human eye to see, can be woven into thread, mixed into ink, thermal-printed onto labels, sprayed on bottles, or embedded into a silk-screening process. The covert system subsequently has been deployed in a wide range of product sectors, including pharmaceuticals, fragrances, cosmetics and wine. The company currently is serving clients including Colgin Cellars, HL Vineyards, Staglin Family Vineyard and Vineyard 29.

Steve Powell, the general manager and director of Kodak Security Solutions, which developed the technology, says the Traceless System capitalizes on the marriage of Kodak's expertise in materials science and its pioneering positioning in digital imaging. The concentrations of the particles are so low that they are not even det ectable by a crime lab. They can be traced only by the hand-held reader, which Kodak provides under lease to its clients.

According to Powell, the particles are not incorporated into any facet of packaging that would make them ingestible, and in lab tests they have withstood extreme conditions such as exposure to high temperatures and bleach.

Chuck McMinn is one of the early converts to the cloak-and-dagger concept. McMinn, who owns Vineyard 29 in St. Helena, Calif., with his wife Anne, deliberated for about a year before he began implementing Kodak's system in June with the bottling of his 2006 vintage.

"Anyone who makes wine for more than $100 a bottle owes it to the customer to guarantee that it's not counterfeit," said McMinn, who added that half of his production is sold directly to collectors on his mailing list. (The rest is distributed almost exclusively on-premise.) "Every product in limited supply with a high value is a target for people motivated by greed."

McMinn plans to publicize his use of the Kodak system in his September mailing to customers. He said one attribute that appealed to him is the fact that the particles could be silk-screened onto his bottles without interfering with the overall look of his package, which he said he worked hard to achieve. Universal Specialties, which manufactures his bottles in Canada, handles the silk-screening process.

All told, he estimated the cost at under $24,000 for silk-screening the traceless particles onto the 2,000 cases of estate wine he produces. (The wines retail for between $75 and $225 per bottle.) He does not use the technology on his non-estate wines.

Though Vineyard 29 has not experienced any incidences of counterfeiting to date, McMinn believes the measure is a proactive step to give consumers "as much assurance as (he) can that the wines are legitimate and trackable back to their source."

He currently is evaluating an RFID technology as well.

"The counterfeiter that poses the threat is the one making the complete knock-off," he said. "The one-off person is not the issue."

Ann Colgin of Colgin Cellars is also a Kodak client. She said that Kodak accommodated her demanding production schedule, managing within 45 days to evaluate her options, conduct a pilot test, issue a proposal and implement a solution.

Spinning toward consumers

Coral Gables, Fla.-based iProof is another new technology company taking aim at the wine industry for the purposes of providing better tracking information through RFID, with a distinctive spin geared toward consumers.

Serial entrepreneur Robert Gutierrez, who serves as the company's managing director, said the device relies on three components: an RFID tag consisting of a chip connected to a copper antenna that both stores product information and contains a code unique to the bottle to which it is affixed; proprietary software that retrieves and analyzes information transmitted from the tag; and a Short Message Service (SMS) or texting service that transmits product information--such as flavor profile, suggested food pairings, and scores and ratings--to end-users, such as consumers, via text message to a cell phone.

The idea grew out of the many bottles of wine Gutierrez enjoyed over the years, only to wake up the next morning "with no clue as to what (he) had drunk the night before."

Determined to develop "a better way to track the wine," he began to tinker with RFID and subsequently launched iProof. He is currently in negotiations with both Vineyard 29 and Bevan Cellars.

Based in New York, Suzanne Gannon writes on travel, culture, food and wine. For the past three years, she has reported on a variety of topics for Wines & Vines. Reach her through edit@winesandvines.com.
 
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