Whether it's wine for tonight's supper or a case bought at auction, pristine provenance has never been more important. Winemakers want nothing more than for you to uncork the wine they made. But with wine traveling to an increasing number of global markets, heat shock during transportation and storage can alter the aromas, flavors and color of wine, as well as damage the wine's ability to age.
"We work very hard to grow our grapes and to make our wine, and yet the last link, the delivery of our wine, could be the most uncertain," said Christopher Howell, winemaker and general manager at Cain Vineyard and Winery in Napa Valley.
A second-generation, high-tech sensor made by eProvenance could help both professionals and consumers scrutinize the delivery process and feel confident about the provenance of their wine. The tech firm introduced the first generation of sensors in 2007, which were adopted by several Bordeaux and Napa producers. But the new 2G sensors are a step up. They track both temperature and humidity, and combine radio frequency identification (RFID) technology with the near-field communication (NFC) protocol for smartphones.
The sensors gather regular temperature and humidity readings during a case's travels. And if retailers or consumers want to know what the wine has endured, NFC-capable telephones allow for wireless communication over a very short distance (4 inches). After downloading the eProvenance app, anyone with an NFC telephone can place the phone against the WiFi symbol on the case, and the data from the sensor is transferred to the phone. The data appears as either a friendly summary or a detailed graph. At the same time, information about the consumer is transmitted to eProvenance and the shipper.
After building the 2G prototype for Napa's Opus One, eProvenance CEO Eric Vogt has drummed up potential interest among top estates in Bordeaux, including Cheval-Blanc, Margaux, Latour, Lynch Bages, Haut-Bailly and Malartic-Lagraviere. According to Vogt, they are particularly keen on the new app, which will "turbocharge their social media strategy."
Keep in mind that Bordeaux châteaus sell their wine to négociants. This means they prepare the cases, but the négociants and their clients take responsibility for pickup, transportation choices, storage and delivery of the wine. Rarely do the châteaus know the country destination, let alone the retailer, sommelier or consumer. "We would like to know our consumers better—where are they, who are they," said Tristan Kressman, general manager of Château Latour-Martillac.
The 2G sensors also improve traceability by implanting the sensor in the side of the wood case. Each bottle in the case is linked to a unique sensor, which means bottles can't be mixed and matched with sensors that have enjoyed a more stable trip. Longevity has also improved—while the 1G sensors faded after nine months, the 2G sensors last up to 15 years.
In London and Hong Kong, wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd already uses the 1G sensors and will soon be publishing the results as proof to customers that their wine is perfectly handled and stored, according to wine director Alun Griffiths. Although he was a bit worried that perfectly-stored wine that did not use the sensors might be treated with suspicion, Griffiths sees potential for the 2G sensors, particularly with the added traceability and Smartphone technology. "We're in favor of anything that gives assurance in what customers are buying."
In the U.S., Cain Winery has jumped on the opportunity to strengthen satisfaction among American direct sales customers by offering to replace any wine that the sensor shows has been compromised. "There will always be occasional glitches in the process and we want to be able to identify and replace each compromised shipment," said Howell.
But there is a catch—at $40 per case, the price might be more than some winegrowers can swallow. "If the sensor lasts 15 years, we can install the sensor ourselves when the case is closed at the château," said Kressman. "But at the price we sell our wines—between $20 and $33—the cost of $2.67 per case per year is high for us. But it could be acceptable for wines selling for more than $67. A trick for us to reduce costs would be to put the sensor in every third or fifth case, giving us a survey."
Bordeaux professionals also expressed concern about who owns the data collected about the wine and the consumers, and how much information regarding the historical temperature data they want moving freely about cyberspace.
And, according to Vogt, the firm is actively developing 3G sensors, still in prototype phase. The 3G sensors have their genesis in a conversation Vogt had with the Moueix family when presenting the 2G sensors. Edouard Moueix, executive vice president of the firm, said the sensors were impressive but asked what the company could do to track stolen wine.
Vogt immediately went to work to integrate geo-localization technology using the global GMS system to provide real-time humidity, temperature and location information delivered by SMS text messages, making it much easier to pinpoint when and where wine 'falls off the truck.'
As long as the case remains en route and intact, the 3G sensors could add spice to the argument that a well-traveled wine is not necessarily synonymous with poor quality. "In Hong Kong, a common question asked is if this bottle is from Europe or America. This is really a litmus test of provenance," said Mandy Chan of Ginsberg+Chan fine wine merchants in Hong Kong, which relies on eProvenance sensors to track their shipments. "It's assumed that a European bottle would have higher chances of better provenance because it has traveled less than the American bottle. But we know that this isn't necessarily true. If an American bottle has been stored and shipped in the right conditions, it can be a great find and will probably be a better price."