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Wine provenance watchdog


Philip White discusses a new cryptographic digital business model which could revolutionise the way wine is sold, mainly by eliminating bullshit.

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I have seen the future of the fine-wine industry, and its name is blockchain.

This is tricky to explain, so forgive me while I try.

As the value of expensive exported wine continues to increase, many opportunities arise for those who would tinker with that main key of added value: the wine’s provenance. The history of the wine; its source; who made it; where and why and how. The quality and source of its oak. The conditions of its cellaring.

While these things are highly valued and jealously protected in the heady regions of extravagant luxury wine, the murk of time unremembered is easily manipulated by the sophists: bullshitters and shills peddling wines which are a touch short of your actual legit provenance. Age of vines, age of dirt, geology, altitude … and we’ve not even reached the winery.

The language used squeezing this sort of stuff onto a back label, a website or a brochure is often of comic-book level. Vainglorious claims of this and that, feigning science and history, all squoze in between the bit about the old draft horse next door and grandpa’s skill at honing scythes and it goes best with most food or truffles.

Once the wine hits the market, the backbiters and syndicators really get loose. John Lee Hooker sang about these hanging round the juke-joint doors on Back Biters and Syndicators. I’ll bet some smarty has dared to put that on a back label somewhere.

There are many audacious middlepersons in wine.

For a long time, the stock exchange has housed many of them: people who invest and sell who influence the monetary value of wine companies, for starters. But now the Australian Stock Exchange is trialling a brilliant new technology which can be spread to other backwaters of provenance.

Like, possibly, all of it. Science – climate, weather, soil, geology, winemaking and other, more folkish history. Not to mention every step of its financial status, locked in on a self-updating ledger common to all participants in the chain from the dirt to the drinker. It’s called blockchain, and it removes middlemen. No more wholesaler.

“It’s going to be a very pervasive element of a future model of commerce,” IBM’s Henning Diedrich told Richard Aedy, in his brilliant new ABC Radio National show, The Money, on February 4.

“It’s going to be like the highways, like the internet … Blockchain is probably going to become a household name just like everybody knows what the internet is today.”

Diedrich heads IBM ADEPT, an elite unit which is developing the technology. Clever people in many businesses are onto it.

The most well-known blockchain example is Bitcoin, the emergent crypto-currency.

Blockchains use cryptography to keep buying, selling or renting transactions secure … the exchanging of things of value. The technology can be used for more applications than anybody’s really got their heads around.

“It’s a distributed ledger,” Dilan Rajasingham, executive manager, technology innovation, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, told The Money. “We’re looking at things that will be commonplace five to 10 years out … [Blockchain’s] something which allows multiple parties, which need to communicate together to exchange something of value … to do that in their real time, and it allows them to do that in an almost completely automated manner.”

In Australian wine, a great deal of this information is extant. Many bodies collect wine industry intelligence for their own purposes. The Government, the phylloxera people, the Bureau of Stats, the Winemakers’ Federation, Wine Australia, the regional bodies, the vendors of sprays, and all vineyard and winery suppliers …

Woolworths is a master at gathering the finest details of its wine suppliers’ information on their suppliers, costs, taxes and manufacture. Woolworths has huge influence, being involved itself in grape-growing, winemaking, wholesale, export, retail and even the tertiary auction market.

Whatever Woolies or the other half of that duopoly, Coles, thinks or does, blockchain could replace it all by automatically compiling all that information the instant any change or transaction occurs, then opening that encrypted ledger to everyone in the chain. Everyone has the same information. It’s always up-to-date. The punters will expect it.

“The underlying technology of the blockchain is that it is immutable,” Rajasingham told The Money. “It can’t be changed. It’s programmed that way. That gives us the wonderful opportunity to use it for things like alleviating poverty. You can give an asset to somebody and there’s no intermediary that can rip that person off.”

Leanne Kemp, founder and CEO of Everledger, said: “It’s the ability of people and entities and things that don’t know each other – especially over the internet – to be able to come together.

“It allows me and my computer and whatever service I’m using to agree with someone else’s computer on what service they’re providing. So for the first time in the world, you and I, and a company, a different company that don’t know each other can agree on the state of things, whether it’s how much money someone has, whether an action was taken, and basically agree on the truth of something.”

“With blockchains, you can have new forms of decision-making in governance,” said Constance Choi, CEO Seven Advisory and Founder of Coala global, ” … you can have oversight and transparency in the way corporations are run … you can automate many of these actions… it provides an ability to really change the way we do business in a more fair and transparent and equitable way and also maybe create new economies that track more of what people really care about and value …”

This stuff is in its infancy. But think about it. “Drugs are the most counterfeited products,” Aedy pointed out. “It’s estimated that people pay $200 billion a year for drugs that are not what they say they are … but you can use the blockchain to track pharmaceuticals through the supply chain, which means you’re certain that they’re the real thing.”

Increasingly, incredible detail about grape-growing is being collated by regional organisations and others, like those that administrate organic and biodynamic certification. Beyond that, computer-driven water sensors record moisture levels in the soil of specific vineyards; weather stations record and transmit the minute detail of day-to-day conditions; we know the soils and are learning the geology; Beaume and mould records are kept; leaf analysis … this detail is ripe to be included in a blockchain that provides the eventual buyer of the wine with that information.

Add the day-to-day records of ferment temperature and whatever in the winery; real alcohol levels; the conditions of storage; the list of places of storage; successive owners; the tax paid … it’s not a great stretch of imagination to see this applied to wines, especially those of extreme value and provenance, because the international customer will expect it, whether they care to comprehend it all or not.

The trickle-down effects of this are wondrous to consider. Many modern producers all over the world will find it increasingly difficult to snowball their customers, however meagre the price or lowly the discount bin.

Without the precise information consumers see being afforded to upmarket products, those modest discount wines could only diminish in relative value unless they catch the blockchain train: If they don’t, the customers’ appreciation of the gap between fine, profitable wine and bulk mindless alley juice will widen.

It’s not so much that folks would expect an instant hike in quality. Regardless of how much they’re spending, they’d probably just prefer to know they’re not being bullshitted to such an extent.

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