Cheers to Wi-Fi - Page 2

By Lisa Phifer

November 15, 2007

Day Three: Looking in all the right places

On my last day back in Napa Valley, I still held out hope of finding the all-unwired winery. Although that never quite happened, I did have a successful morning of AP hunting.

At Cakebread Cellars in Rutherford, I found Wi-Fi used in the visitors center area to link to a kiosk.

"The kiosk allows sign-ups to our mailing list," explained Dennis Cakebread, Director of Sales. "We use Wi-Fi so that we don't have to run [Ethernet] cables, as we re-configure the room seasonally to allow tanks to be used during harvest."

Down in Napa's Stags Leap District, I spotted Wi-Fi at Steltzner Vineyards, used for employee mobile network access in and around this family-owned winery. Co-owner Allison Steltzner told me, "It allows my winemaker Tim Dolven to have a laptop on the crush pad and not be tied down to a desk."

I stumbled onto a two-for-one when visiting Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel. According to president and CEO Larry Maguire, these sister wineries, located on opposite sides of SR29 in Oakville, use Wi-Fi to support winery operations.

"Much of our staff works for both wineries," explained Maguire. "When we have meetings at either winery, or if our staff simply is working mobile from one winery or the other, Wi-Fi provides easy access to our network. We are able to work much more efficiently than if we had to save and download everything once we're back in our offices."

Taking Wi-Fi into fields and cellars

For the most part, these vintners use Wi-Fi in much the same way that other businesses do. But what about wireless applications specific to the wine industry?

"There is much that Wi-Fi can offer [and] we are excited about the many ways we can use it in the future," Maguire noted.

Back at the office, I tried to contact these and other wineries spotted during my travels, including Quintessa, Fawn Park Vineyard, Poetry, Whitehall Lane, and Pina Cellars. Through Web research, I quickly found a pair of interesting applications used by California wineries.

Crop management is critically important to vineyards. Depending on weather, style, and quality, one acre of grapes can yield from two to ten tons of fruit that create several hundred bottles of wine. Many vintners use weather station sensors to monitor vineyard air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction, solar radiation, and precipitation. Specialized sensors can also be used to monitor soil and leaf canopy conditions. Those data samples can be inspected manually or transmitted to a server—uplinks range from dial-up and cellular to mesh networks and Wi-Fi.

For example, RanchMaster radio base stations collect and relay field data back to Ranch Systems' secure data center via GSM cellular or Wi-Fi. Each base station relays data from up to 50 micro-climate measurement sensor nodes, located within one-third of a mile (line of site). For hard-to-reach nodes, a Wi-Fi substation can be used to relay data to a base station. Customers can monitor and manage field data remotely, in real time, from any Internet browser. Wireless nodes start at $195, with a service fee of $5/month. Base stations start at $1300, with a service fee of $39/month. Sensor prices vary based on type and degree of accuracy.ranchsystems.jpg

According to the company's Web site, Beckstoffer Vineyards in St. Helena uses RanchMaster for irrigation control. Vineyard Manager Gaspar Roby said, "After testing Ranch Systems on a ten-acre vineyard block in Saint Helena, Napa Valley in 2006, we decided to contract their services to remotely operate and monitor the whole 20-acre ranch. Ranch Systems allows us to operate irrigation valves, as well as to monitor soil moisture at different soil depths."

Wine barrels (empty and full) represent another very significant investment for any winery. A single barrel can easily cost $600 new and yield about 300 bottles of wine per vintage.

Techniques used for barrel management range from hand-written notes to bar codes to RFID tags. TagStream BarrelTrak automates this process by combining RFID tags (affixed to barrels) with an RFID scanner/writer wand (affixed to a handheld PDA) and an 802.11b/g uplink to winery systems like eSkye Blend Suite and The Winemakers Database.

barreltrak.jpgRFID tags can be used to record barrel history (cooperage, year, forest, toast, flavor profile) and wine-making transactions (fills, topping, emptying, SO2, and chemical additions). Winemakers can also use the wand/PDA to add tasting notes directly to the tags instead of transcribing notes. By using Wi-Fi to extract database records, a winemaker can have ready access to blend data (varietals, vintage, vineyard/appellation/block) and chemical composition (alcohol, acidity, brix).

BarrelTrak Starter Kits are priced at $9,995, including 750 RFID tags, a PDA/scanner for reading RFID tags, and a single client/server software license. Tagstream's Daphne Page told me that there are no installed accounts in the Napa/Sonoma valleys. However, several California wineries now use BarrelTrak, including Sea Smoke Cellars down in Santa Barbara County. [Read more.]

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