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Wine and Brandy Maker in High Spirits Over RFID

KWV is employing EPC Gen 2 passive tags to track the barrels it uses for aging its products.
By Claire Swedberg
Jun 11, 2008KWV is employing RFID technology to track its barrels as they are used to store wine and brandy being processed and aged. The system, provided by RFID Institute and using tags from Alien Technology, helps the South African brandy and wine maker track where its barrels are located, the number of times they have been used and when new barrels need to be ordered.

Barrels are an important asset for wine makers, but until now, KWV has had a difficult time tracking them. The company's Paarl facility has designated locations, divided into small storage areas, for brandy and wine. The barrels are stored in multiple locations within the two plants as they are used and reused. Utilizing the correct barrels at the proper time during the aging process affects the spirits' quality, but these oak wooden barrels—which cost about $1,000 apiece—are difficult to track through the maturation process and (in the case of brandy) distillation.

RFID Institute's senior application engineer, Kevin O'Neill, stands amid racks loaded with barrels.

KWV previously used a paper-based system that assigned batch numbers to track groups of barrels as they arrived from coopers in France and the United States. Once a batch of barrels was broken into smaller groups, however, it became very difficult to identify them. This created problems for the company, because the origins and history of each barrel are critical to the brandy- and wine-making business.

A barrel wood's forest of origin, its wood-grain and age, and the type of wine or brandy it has contained (and for how long) all affect the flavor and quality of the product stored within it. Barrels are reused multiple times over their 20- to 30-year lifespan, but wine makers must track how often, for how long, and with which wine or brandy each has been used, to know how its wood will affect the next mix stored in it.

Barrels are initially filled with wine, which is then aged for several years, at which point KWV determines which wine batches will be distilled as brandy. Brandy requires a longer maturation process—10 or 20 years—as it ages in multiple barrels. A 20-year-old brandy can typically change barrels eight to 10 times to enhance its flavor before being bottled.

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