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Startup Service Adds Smarts to Fine Wine

A company named eProvenance is employing a combination of semi-active and passive RFID tags, as well as specialized ink, to track and authenticate bottles "from château to consumer."
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Mar 28, 2008"From farm to fork" is a catchphrase used to express a means of tracking animals from birth, through slaughter, and to the dinner plate—a process for which RFID is increasingly employed. Eric Vogt has started a company, eProvenance, offering a service for tracking fine wines "from château to consumer." To that end, his company is employing a combination of semi-active (battery-assisted) and passive RFID technology, as well as specialized ink, which work in concert to track, authenticate and monitor bottles of wine.

A wine's provenance is the record of its custody, authenticity and environmental exposure, from the time it was bottled to when it is consumed. Provenance plays a major role in a bottle of wine's value; a well-recorded provenance can add 15 percent to wine's value, says Vogt, and sometimes more. But the problem is that the historical records of most wines, he says, are full of holes.

The eProvenance group glued battery-assisted passive 13.56 MHz RFID tags with integrated temperature sensors to the interior more than 1,200 wooden cases of wine.
For fine wines, it's common for shippers to add temperature trackers to loads of wine—generally shipped via boat—as they make their way between continents, in order to know what range of temperatures the wine is exposed to while aboard the boat. This adds costs but without, contends Vogt, enough value: "The ocean shipping portion only counts for one third or one half of the journey," he says. "It's what happens when the case is off the boat that matters." And because the temperature is tracked only during the boat portion of the wine's journey, it does not provide the players in the wine's supply chain—from winemakers to freight forwarders to distributors and sellers, and finally, consumers—a complete or accurate provenance.

Much of the data Vogt and his team at eProvenance have collected during pilot project, begun six months ago, supports this theory. The company is headquartered in Boston, with offices in Paris and the Bordeaux region of France. As part of the pilot, Vogt's group glued battery-assisted passive 13.56 MHz RFID tags with integrated temperature sensors to the interior more than 1,200 wooden cases of wine shipped from nine winemakers in the Bordeaux region of France, to points in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. A shipment of wine from Bordeaux to Tokyo, for example, was kept well within a safe temperature range from the point of bottling, to a broker's facility, onto a ship and during the many weeks it was in transit. When the load arrived in Tokyo, however, it was exposed to temperature well above the range that the wine industry considers safe for that particular type of wine, according to the temperature data log downloaded from the tags, which are set to record temperature three times per day.

The temperature-tracking tag that eProvenance places inside each case of wine is roughly the size of credit card and is made by KSW Microtec. It stores the temperature log on the tag's 8-kilobit memory, which can hold up to 720 readings, according to Liz Churchill, eProvenance vice president of solutions. When set to record temperature three times her day, the tag's battery can last for about one year, she says.

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