The Internet...of Wine




Winemaking is an art. The vintner oversees the growing conditions and monitors the grapes to determine the right time for harvest. Then, he or she keeps a careful eye on the fermentation and aging process and many other essential details to produce the final bottles of wine. So, when you hear that the Internet of Things (IoT) is getting involved in winemaking, what does that really mean? Does it take all of the talent of the winemaker out of the equation? Not at all. But, it does help coordinate and optimize some elements of the equation.

Like other agricultural crops, grapes need a certain amount of water and sun, along with properly fertilized soil to produce the best outcome. While the Internet of Things can’t control the sun, it can trigger the ideal amount of irrigation and fertilizer for crops to maximize yield, and help let winemakers know the peak times to harvest based on weather data and crop readiness. According to Verizon’s Internet of Things 2016 report, growers are reaping the benefits of IoT by deploying more technology in their fields— resulting in bigger crop yields, overall operational efficiencies, and reduced costs.

How One Vineyard Harnessed the Internet of Things

Last fall, Hahn Family Wines based in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County, California installed hundreds of wireless sensors on its 1,000-acre vineyard. The sensors are buried 12 to 48 inches below the ground to monitor soil moisture every six acres and can precisely monitor the health and conditions of the vines.

The Santa Lucia Highlands is known as perfect for growing grapes, including elevations of up to 1,200 feet, soil that drains well and moderate temperatures. Even with California’s drought, the region is fed by an underground aquifer so water supply is not a problem. Pinot Noir grapes – which are particularly tricky to cultivate – thrive in this environment.

Hahn Vineyard already produces excellent wines (in fact, Hahn’s SLH Pinot Noir was featured on the January 2016 cover of Wine Spectator magazine) and the vineyard produces 400,000 cases of wine each year, so why introduce the IoT? Head winemaker Paul Clifton explains they are turning to the Internet of Things for even better quality and uniformity of grapes. In addition, sensor data and analytics will let them conserve resources and treat vines for pests and mildew very precisely and only where needed.

At the Hahn Vineyard, the sensors interact with aerial drones and an on-site weather station to determine if the grapes are getting too big, if the vines are at risk for mildew or mold, or if there is not enough sunshine. The vineyard is a test case for Verizon’s AgTech bundled wireless IoT packages, which the company plans to roll out commercially to other vineyards this year. This is all part of a trend known as precision agriculture, which can help to improve a farm’s financial performance, but will also assist in meeting the food needs of an expanding population.

According to Verizon, Hahn has equipped each five to six-acre block in the pilot with a water flowmeter at the water pump, a moisture probe that measures four different levels of soil where the grapes are growing, and a weather station. An IoT gateway continuously monitors data from the sensors and transmits it wirelessly to Verizon’s Ag tech solution. In the pilot, Hahn is using the weather station to monitor solar radiation, wind velocity, humidity and air temperature. The data is available on a dashboard and Hahn can check the information in real-time and adjust growing processes accordingly, making decisions about irrigation, pest control and harvesting. 

A major benefit of the sensors was checking for irrigation leaks. This was previously done manually by the vineyard’s 50 employees and was very time consuming. In addition, an algorithm can help search for signs of mildew before it is even visible. 

Hahn Family Wines’ first bottle of “IoT wine” will be ready next year. What is expected? … A better tasting wine, or an equally good wine that is produced more efficiently? Either way, it’s a win.

Wine Production Benefits as Well

It’s not only vineyards that can be IoT-monitored and controlled. IoT-connected sensors can also help in the actual wine production plant where grape yields are calculated and the wine fermentation and production processes are automated and controlled. This data allows vineyards to become more efficient and ultimately will lead to better wine quality and quantity. According to Schneider Electric, an IT management firm, this is a classic example of sensing the physical environment and passing that data into an IT system that can monitor and control the process, adding business value on top of sensor data.

Tracking Wine through the Supply Chain

On the distribution side, the IoT is making its mark in the wine world as well. A Norwegian company called Thinfilm is using near-field communication (NFC) technology to make wine labels “a little bit smart.” The company’s OpenSense product uses electronics integrated into smart labels that can be read throughout the entire supply chain, allowing retailers and manufacturers to track from the storage location to the retail point of sales.  

The NFC tags cost only tens of cents and have a competitive advantage over QR codes and RFID tracking because NFC tags can dynamically detect a bottle’s sealed or open state. Once in an open state, messages can be sent directly to the consumer on their phones. The labels also have the capability to detect temperature and can show if a bottle has been stored above or below a certain temperature range.

Australia's Ferngrove Wines is testing an anti-counterfeit tag based on Thinfilm’s OpenSense NFC tag to ensure that individual bottles of wine are packaged, shipped, stocked and purchased in their original factory-sealed state. Chinese-owned Ferngrove is a major exporter of wines to the Asia-Pacific region, where counterfeiting of wine is a major problem and as much of 70% of “imported” wine in China is fake.

Bringing Wine to the Consumer

The Internet of Wine even reaches to the consumer. Several companies have worked on bringing “smart wine racks” to market based on IoT technology. The idea is that when wine is removed from the rack, it will let you know you are getting low, and gives you the option to reorder a bottle. However, it seems that this concept is a bit trickier that it appears – EndlessWine recently launched an Indiegogo campaign around this concept but fell short of its financial goal.

Another example is Kuvée, a Boston-based IoT startup that has developed a Wi-Fi-connected smart wine dispenser. The dispenser looks like and feels like a standard wine bottle, but upon inserting a proprietary Kuvée wine bottle, it serves wine a single glass at a time while naturally preserving the remaining wine. Inside the dispenser is an aluminum capsule, inside which is a vacuum sealed plastic bag – keeping wine fresh for up to 30 days. (Hmmm … those boxed wines might know what they’re doing.)

The dispenser also has a touch screen “smart label” that displays the wine’s label, gives consumers access to more information about the wine, and lets you place an online order. A cool gadget, yet expensive at $199 – in addition, you have to buy wine brands that have partnered with Kuvée to make their wine available in the proprietary package.
In summary, the Internet of Things is being implemented everywhere – and industries will be transformed. Will every aspect of the wine industry be successfully enhanced by the IoT? Maybe not. But, there certainly are a lot of people trying. Cheers!

Image by tribp on Flickr (CC by 2.0)

Image of Hahn Vineyard by Georgio on Flickr (CC by 2.0)