Cheers to Wi-Fi

Each fall, I spend a weekend touring the northern California wine country, enjoying the flurry of activity that comes with every new harvest. This year, I thought I’d try something a little different—an experiment that I hoped would combine my passion for wine with my insatiable curiosity about all things wireless.

Like many Wi-Fi enthusiasts, I’ve done my share of “net stumbling.” I suspected there might be a hotbed of wireless activity around Napa, perched just to the north of Silicon Valley. But how, I wondered, does the wine industry actually make use of Wi-Fi? I decided to find out for myself.

Day One: Wi-Fi everywhere and nowhere

For this year’s road trip, I packed my tiniest notebook running NetStumbler and AirMagnet Laptop, a pair of Pocket PCs running AirMagnet Handheld, an external antenna, a GPS, and a DC power inverter to keep everything juiced.

As soon as we turned onto California State Road 29, I fired up my notebook. Ding, ding, ding! Sure enough, Wi-Fi was just about everywhere. In fact, the roadway was lined by NapaNet access points, a WISP that offers commercial Wi-Fi Internet from Vallejo to St. Helena.

However, as I examined survey data and carried my PPC into several vintners along Napa’s Silverado Trail, my search for winery Wi-Fi came up dry. Those WLANs must be here, I thought, I’m just not finding them. I vowed to look harder tomorrow.

Day Two: Wi-Fi over the hill

The next morning, I headed northwest over the Mayacamas Mountains to tour the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys. Once again, I encountered over one hundred WLANs within earshot of my route, including WiFiHealdsburg, a free public wireless service covering downtown Healdsburg.

This morning, I hit pay-dirt at our first scheduled stop: Jordan Winery. Multiple on-premises WLANs were clearly visible from my PPC as we toured this beautiful French-style chateau. A Linksys 802.11n router delivered wireless Internet to the hospitality wing. Another Linksys 802.11g AP served a technical tasting room. An outdoor wireless bridge appeared to be used to reach a more distant portion of the estate.airmagnet.jpg

Gordon Palmateer, Jordan’s Director of Sales and Marketing, told me that some visitors come to the winery for entertainment (tours, tastings, dining, overnight stays) while others are there to conduct business (channel partners, vendors).

“As our business is founded on word of mouth referrals, we look for every opportunity to serve our guests,” said Palmateer. “That includes offering wireless access to those who need it, [for] activities ranging from checking e-mail to making presentations.”

Wi-Fi adds flexibility and mobility for Jordan’s employees as well as for guests.

“Our winemaker uses it in the technical tasting room, when he’s working in there with our production team, tasting different samples. We also use it during meetings with customers and vendors and comparative tastings,” said Palmateer.

After leaving Jordan, I spotted several more winery WLANs, including a Cisco 802.11g AP at Silver Oak Alexander Valley and a handful of Cisco 802.11g APs at the J Winery tasting room. Unfortunately, staff either did not know or were reluctant to discuss how those establishments took advantage of Wi-Fi. Oh well, I thought. I’ll just keep looking. [Read more.]

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.]

Following wine from the vine to the bottle

With a little more digging, I found that Scheid Vineyards uses Wi-Fi in many interesting ways, throughout its entire vineyard and wine-making operation. Scheid farms grapes on 13 Monterey Country vineyard properties, from Soledad to Hames Valley. The company sells fruit and/or wine to over 40 wine labels, including Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery, Don Sebastiani & Sons, David Bruce Winery, Diageo, The Hess Collection Winery, and Constellation Brands.

Mary Lawler, the Director of Marketing at The Hess Collection Winery, lead me to VitWatch, a Web-based vineyard monitoring system developed by Scheid to provide its clients with real-time Web access to vineyard data. In a quote posted on Scheid’s Web site, viticulturist Richard Camera said, “From our winery in Napa, VitWatch allows us to take the pulse of specific vineyard blocks where The Hess Collection has contracted high-value wine grapes.”

vitwatch.jpgAccording to Tony Stephen, Scheid’s Director of Wine and Grape Sales, VitWatch has been in operation for a little over four years. Through the VitWatch Web site (left), winery clients have access to a wide range of monitored vineyard information, including temperature, rainfall, soil moisture, irrigation schedules, and vineyard activities, such as pruning, budbreak, bloom, and fruit set dates.

VitWatch also provides an extensive Vit-Cam system, consisting of 17 remotely-controlled cameras that deliver on-demand live video feeds to Web users. By logging into VitWatch from the comfort of my desk back in Pennsylvania, I toured Scheid’s crush pad, fermentation tanks, and fields.

“The cameras inside our winery are wired, but we also have solar-powered cameras out in the vineyards that are wireless, including one that’s on a semi-autonomous trailer,” said Stephen. The view from that mobile-wireless camera is shown above, after I’d panned and zoomed the camera to catch just a bit of the unit’s solar panel.

Scheid also uses Wi-Fi to provide high-speed Internet access to all of its ranches.

“We use several repeater sites to [propagate] signal into areas that would not otherwise have Internet coverage, which has its advantages,” said Stephen. “For example, our ranch managers have laptops in their trucks, mounted on pivots. Now they can write orders by typing them into a laptop and send them directly to printers over wireless.”

Commercial weather stations located in Scheid’s vineyards also now use Wi-Fi uplinks.

“We used to spend thousands per month because those stations would periodically dial-up to send weather data,” said Stephen. “When we switched to Wi-Fi, we saved thousands of dollars, and now we have that data in real-time.”

Wi-Fi also plays a role in uploading data from scales as grapes are harvested.

“Before, we’d have to weigh the fruit, print the weight out, and tag the grapes. Eventually, that data would be entered into a computer at the office, but that could take days,” said Stephen. “Now, if a wireless laptop is hooked up to the scale, the weight goes right to our servers, in real-time, without error.”

Back in the lab, Scheid uses sophisticated tools to measure brix, acidity, and PH level.

“Using Wi Fi, that analysis goes right into our database servers, gets published onto VitWatch, and gets e-mailed to our clients immediately,” explained Stephen. “They can pick up messages from any device with Internet access to get real-time lab data about the fruit that they’re buying from us.” [Read more.]

Growing market

If Scheid’s experience is any indication, wireless has tremendous potential to aid the winemaking industry. At this summer’s Wine Industry Technology Symposium in Napa, participants discussed all kinds of vineyard information systems, including industry-specific software and hardware products that leverage networking for data access, process automation, and systems integration. Other novel uses include fermentation tank management, BATF Form 702 and Bioterrorism Act compliance reporting, and vine-to-bottle traceability and costing.

So why didn’t I run into more of these applications during my brief road trip? For starters, wine making is a primarily an agricultural activity, less accustomed, equipped, or staffed with IT systems than your typical office park business. Larger, distributed vineyards and wineries clearly have the most to gain and invest in wireless applications, but smaller vintners will probably follow as industry use spreads, familiarity grows, and prices drop.

Furthermore, I focused exclusively on Wi-Fi, but 802.11 isn’t the only wireless game in town. For example:

  • Scheid also uses Acrolon TankNET, a Web-based fermentation control system that provides real-time, centralized access to tank thermostat readings. Thermostats can be connected by Ethernet or powerline “wireless Ethernet.”

  • Monterey Pacific in the Central Coast uses SureHarvest for Vineyards, a fully-integrated vineyard management software system that supports varied input devices for field data collection, including PDAs connected via Bluetooth, LAN, or WAN.

  • Provenance Vineyards in St. Helena use POS Resources Winery Solutions. This tasting room point-of-sale system, customized for the wine industry, is supplied with all necessary hardware, including kiosks, hand-held scanners, and wireless networking.

Many other wireless-enabled products are now available for use by the wine industry. Today’s early adopters understand that wineries and vineyards can benefit from this kind of applied information technology. A few years from now, I would expect to see more wireless activity in the valley—including, but certainly not limited to, Wi-Fi. After all, when it comes to wireless technology, the sky’s the limit.

Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. She has been involved in the design, implementation, assessment, and testing of wireless products and networks for nearly 15 years.

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