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Tracking wine bottles through RFID

Sea Smoke Cellars, Lompac, CA, a small winery in the Santa Rita Hills of California, produces estate-grown Pinot Noir in a coveted stretch of land in the western end of Santa Barbara, known for its "perfect" microclimate, soils and sun exposure to grow world-class wine. In 1999, this sought-after stretch of land became Sea Smoke Vineyard. The new winery produces Pinot Noir grown exclusively on the south-facing hillsides of its estate vineyards, getting its name from the foggy layer emanating from the Santa Ynez River canyon, which funnels a cool fog layer, or "sea smoke," across the hillsides, perfect for Pinot Noir grapes.

Sea Smoke's wines, priced between $25 and $65 a bottle, are made in small quantities, so they are highly allocated and can sometimes be difficult to obtain. After its Pinot Noir gained world-class status and was featured in this year's wine lover's picture, "Sideways," the wines have become a huge hit. But the boutique winery is gaining recognition for adding a very different ingredient to its winemaking practices: Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), courtesy of a unique tracking system that has its former tracking process over a barrel—by keeping more effective tabs on its valuable barrels and on the progress of its even more valuable wines.

Winemaker Kris Curran works directly with the vineyard crew throughout the growing season. The crew hand harvests each of what the winery calls its 10 "clones" of Pinot Noir, brought to the winery for hand sorting. Each clone is kept separate throughout the winemaking process, enabling Curran to develop an intimate knowledge of each barrel. The individual barrel lots form the basis of a complex flavor palette from which final blending decisions are made by the Sea Smoke winemaking team.

To track the barrels and the progress of its wines throughout the winemaking and bottling process, Sea Smoke Cellars has adopted a technically advanced technique through the use of Barrel Trak(TM), an RFID-process data-management system that teams advanced technology developed by Sea Smoke's Curran together with Omron Electronics LLC (www.packaging.omron.com) and TagStream, Inc. (www.tagstreaminc.com). Barrel Trak, for which TagStream holds patents, was the brainchild of Peter Taylor, an experienced winemaker and TagStream's CEO and cofounder. Taylor contacted Omron with his idea, and Omron recommended hardware, assisted with some of the testing and helped further support the concept.

Taylor says he invented the system to cultivate his own winemaking process "because I didn't want the hassle of all the paperwork and keeping notes. Omron has been a key supplier for our systems-integration business since the mid 1980s. We decided to use their RFID technology, and they have given us exceptional technical support."

The Barrel Trak system comprises a number of components, including Omron's standard, passive, 125-kHz RFID tags, which are each about the size of a quarter and hold 240 bytes of data, as well as wireless data scanners, unique communications software and proprietary server software that integrates with third-party process-control databases. Carrying each barrel's unique serial number, the RFID tag, with a data carrier or chip encapsulated in plastic resin, is secured by hand to the end of the barrel with GE Silicones & Adhesives' (www.gesealants.com) sturdy, 108 food-grade silicone adhesive.

TagStream developed an ergonomic, hand-held, 18-in.-long, wireless data wand that contains a low-frequency V700-HMD11 RFID read/write antenna from Omron, a battery pack and a built-in iPAQ Personnel Data Assistant (PDA) from Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com), outfitted with Wi-Fi networking software and Barrel Trak applications software (TagStream points out that the system can be used with almost any PDA that runs Microsoft OS). Omron says it also provided the read/write form factor that can be incorporated into the human interface—the PDA.

Curran uses the wand and a Barrel Trak-equipped computer server to access existing data relating to specific wine barrels. Sea Smoke's PC-based system runs Microsoft Windows XP, but Barrel Trak is also compatible with Windows 2000 for data collection and management. Curran can key in information from handwritten notes, via the PDA, about the current state of the wine in the barrel and the actions taken to adjust it, if necessary. The notes are transmitted to the server in real time, and the information is stored on software. The barrel's history (such as the grape, lot and specific vineyard the grapes came from) can also be included and stored as data.

For Sea Smoke, Barrel Trak is able to add 21st-century, fingertip data accessibility to the winery's age-old art of winemaking. Sea Smoke has been using the system in production for about two years. "The primary benefit of Barrel Trak is the availability of information at the barrel site that lets us know in real time exactly what our database knows about the wine," says Curran.

Oak wine barrels can be quite expensive and have a service life typically of five years, so it's critical to track them carefully, Taylor says. Though several wineries use sophisticated tracking systems, such as bar-code labeling combined with hand-held, optical scanners, others still rely on hand-printed notecards and handwritten chalk marks.

Before adopting the new tracking technology, Sea Smoke tracked the development of its wines by the lot instead of by the barrel, recording each step in the winemaking process in handwritten notes. The notes were then transcribed into a central database—a common practice among winemakers. The new system eliminates much of the labor-intensive portions of the tracking process and potential user error. Now, there's no need to hunt for a clipboard full of wrinkled sheets of paper containing work orders and critical tasting notes, and then have to transpose the order scrawls into the database.

"It was a painful and time-consuming process, compounded by the difficulty of interpreting hastily written notes in hard-to-read handwriting," Curran admits. Now, the Barrel Trak system allows the winery to know exactly what wine is in a barrel immediately, as well as how it was processed, which vineyard it came from, which block and which clonal percentage (refers to the amount of each type of grape that comprises a blend in the barrel). It also tells Curran when the wine went to the barrel, provides a harvest analysis and what additions have been made to the wine, if any. "All of this can be done without the wine ever leaving the barrel," she says. "Before, we had to run to the computer every time we had a question about a wine."

Sea Smoke's finest wine is called Ten, which takes its name from the 10 different Pinot clones in the vineyard. Botella, a second wine, is named after the predominant soil type. Southing reflects the direction the vineyard faces. Total production in 2003 was expected to reach 15,000 cases. That number has certainly increased, especially since the indie hit movie "Sideways" triggered an earthquake of interest in California vintners and, especially in Pinot Noir.

But it's the barrel that's key to turning Sea Smoke's optimum growing conditions into quality wines. Costing upwards of $800, a premiere wine barrel has a useful life of about five years. A wine barrel commonly holds 60 gal of wine, equivalent to 24 12-bottle cases of finished wine. The barrel not only shelters the wines as they mature, but adds a critical element to the final result. "The barrel adds complex flavors to the wine as it matures," explains Taylor.

Wine barrels are made of carefully chosen oak and are hand-crafted. Taylor points out that the barrels don't physically wear out, but after about two years of use, they can become neutral. "They then have very little 'flavor' left to contribute to the wine, hence the need to track carefully the life of each barrel," he says.

Sea Smoke earlier considered bar-coded labels, says Curran, who has had experience with them at other wineries. "The idea was to read them using a hand-held device, to simplify inventory taking," she says. But in a winery environment, problems can occur. "These labels are prone to mold, which makes them unreadable, and they can tear or rip during processing. I spent time reprinting labels and matching them to the barrels."

The Barrel Trak system takes advantage of RFID's capabilities for interactive communication, notes Bill Arnold, Omron's partner business manager and a specialist in RFID applications.

When TagStream began to develop the Barrel Trak system, it consulted with Omron, which shared its experience developing RFID inlets, tags and read/write systems. Taylor says TagStream continues to refine the system to match the needs of other industries. "We're working with some barrel manufacturers to supply barrels to wineries with the tags already installed," he says. "The tag gets encoded with initial information when it's put into service."

The server software incorporates an Application Program Interface (API) that was integrated with Sea Smoke's process-control database. The database can run Winemaker's Database, Conformia WinePRO, eSkye Blend Vineyard Management, OSIRIS or other SQL-based winemaking database systems.

The software can also interface with database systems, including Oracle, SAP, Microsoft SQL Server, MySQL, Postgres and others to record each barrel's history, detailing how the barrel has been used, how long it has been used and its individual characteristics. The data is stored in the barrel's RFID tag and remains with the barrel for its life at Sea Smoke.

The system records other data such as the history of the wine maturing in the barrel—the grape, present process and contents, the lot, the vineyard that produced it and the barrel's usage history. Each application has a set of requirements for data that can be stored on the tags. This data remains on the barrel, becoming part of the history of the barrel's usage and can be updated as it changes through the data wand, right at the barrel.

"The V700D-23P31 tags are from our standard line," Omron's Arnold explains. "Their frequency [125 kHz] is a very short-range product, which, for this application, is desirable, because we wanted to ensure that they were reading the correct tag."

Once a tag is scanned, read and written on an as-needed basis, work orders and other tasks can be entered into the PDA to "write" to the database. The work orders can be sent from the process-control PC database to a warehouse floor, where the work is done, and then the tag is updated. The current Barrel Trak system allows users to view the last three work orders performed on the barrel.

Barrel flavor profiles are very dependant upon age and previous usage. The Barrel Track system allows Sea Smoke to recall all past and present data relating to the barrel. Curran says this gives the winery better control over the quality of the wine, because it can make decisions about the wine on-the-fly. It also eliminates the incidence of damaged labels, bar-code maintenance, misread codes resulting in lost or misplaced barrels, process interruption and wasted wine. All of this saves time and money maintaining records, Curran says.

"If, for instance, we are tasting, and we think a particular barrel needs to be managed separately from the rest of the lot, we can immediately access information about its barrel and see the reason why it's aging or tasting differently," she continues. "Then, we can take action, like racking the wine, adding sulfur dioxide or running an analysis to make an adjustment without the wine ever leaving the barrel. This greatly reduces the chance of human error."

Unlike other methods, wine notes can be recorded on the PDA, and then be scanned into the server. The notes aren't restricted as to their length, or the length of the data field. The staff can track both the development of the wine as it ferments and ages, and can also begin to grade it on a barrel-to-barrel basis, rather than by lots. Curran says this makes the blending that produces the final wine much more efficient and effective.

Beginning in November, 2005, Homeland Security, through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, will require that food and beverage producers report the origin of each ingredient/additive in products. While simplifying barrel inventory and standardizing the recording of the wines' development, RFID tracking can offer wineries like Sea Smoke ways to meet legislative requirements of recording and reporting the source of each of ingredient in foods or beverages.

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