The Business of Wine. Moving beyond Excel.

I’ve run a 150,000 case winery on Excel… but I wouldn’t recommend that for anyone

By Patrick Baker.

Wine production sounds more glamorous than it really is. The day to day functions, logistics, monitoring and maintenance are constant and intensive at times. Harvest, especially, is not for the faint of heart. Therefore a great system for handling the ‘business of wine’ is paramount to maintain sanity and keep the business functioning. You can then focus on the wine business: the wine making and sales passion that compels us vintage after vintage.

A little about me

After a successful career in corporate America, I transitioned to the wine industry and have become an industry veteran with 10+ years experience as a grower, winemaker, and winery General Manager.

My role as former General Manager for Carneros Vintners custom crush facility and sister facility Lodi Vintners, was the impetus for my investigation of winery production software options. My work with a variety of wineries exposed me to an array of winery software before deciding on the VINX2 platform to run the custom crush facilities and since, a few small and larger boutique wineries. My hands on winery experience and real life use of VINX2 are the foundation of my success representing the VINX2 software platform in North America.

Working smarter

The key ingredient to tackling the business of wine is working smarter where we can. The way to do that is to

  • reduce paperwork
  • minimize processing and logistics time
  • preparedness for TTB audits
  • avoiding bond/capacity challenges
  • ensuring COLA label compliance; and
  • maintaining backups of everything… just in case.

Fortunately we have software tools at our disposal, some of them great, some good, and some are potentially disastrous.

Excel
Excel starts off simple…

In all fairness, Microsoft Excel has been the workhorse of our industry to track and report at a minimum. For small ‘Mom & Pop’ to large industrial complex wineries. It works well most of the time and depending on complexity of your records and Excel familiarity, you can keep a lot of info organized in the manner that you like to see it in and maybe organized enough to report for compliance.

I’ve run a 150,000 case winery on Excel but I wouldn’t recommend that for anyone. The problem(s) with Excel start with backup/redundancy and worsen quickly if multiple users need to enter/extract data from the same files. Cloud sharing of Excel files has helped a little bit, but the integrity of the data and often disparate multiple worksheets become ominous to work in and the opposite direction of working smarter. Let alone, some people just aren’t versed in excel and don’t want to start with a blank spreadsheet to track what’s necessary just to comply with compliance requirements.

Beyond Excel

So some of the key attributes of a system that maximizes efficiency and reduces effort must include:

  • Ease of Use/Intuitive (easy to find functions and fast input)
  • Immediate access to key information (faster and more reliable than log books or spreadsheets, and has to be accurate)
  • Easy reporting (both internally and external compliance requirements)
  • Scalability (capability and capacity that grows with you)
  • Dependability (time proven development, backup servers, support staff)
  • Affordability (comparably – how much winemaker salary am I paying to enter lab info from ETS?)

We’ll go into each of the above attributes in future articles with further detail and examples. The focus for each analysis point is real efficiency gains versus amount of effort or simply ‘working smarter’, and added value or bonus potential keeping the ‘business of wine’ in check so we can focus on the wine business. This edition will focus on Ease of Use/Intuitiveness.

Ease of Use

Intuitive systems have one thing in common – they just make sense.

I’ve worked with every popular winery production system available in one capacity or another as a winemaker, cellar master or GM of some small wineries and also very large custom crush facilities.  As mentioned previously I am rather skilled at making Excel work wondrous calculations in addition to creating/tracking work orders, labs and 702/TTB/ABC reports, but the challenge with most of these systems, and especially Excel is usability, or lack thereof.

Tracking Lab Work

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VINX2 Lab Console – Seamless ETS integration

Using labs as an example, you should be able to easily add lab metrics for a lot or barrel with a simple search or visual of the lot/vessel. A good system will display the last metric value so you can easily compare ‘reasonableness’ of your most recent entry, e.g. does the latest Alcohol entry unintentionally change the lots tax class? Perhaps the wrong lot was selected – good thing the last value gave some indication.

An even better system will allow skipping the lab results data entry process entirely by importing them from an offsite lab such as ETS or lab equipment, directly into the system. This concept is truly an efficiency gain, and also alleviates occasional typographic mistakes. A bonus to the download method is a system that allows for download and the ability to ‘verify’ results IF you so choose, even those downloaded from ETS.

VINX2’s Lab Console is a great example of efficient and thoughtful design to enter/download labs. VINX2 has been working with ETS since 2007 for a seamless integration and links to many other systems including OenoFoss, Wine Scan and Thermo Scientific Gallery.

TTB Compliance

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TTB Report filled out for you by VINX2

Having a single point of entry for all wine gains and losses is paramount to every winery. Total gollonage, head space and composition should all be updated in real time with necessary movements fed directly into the 5120.17 (‘702’) TTB compliance report.

As the incoming General Manager to several wineries I have inherited ‘systems’ where there are at least two disjoint spreadsheets– one for tracking lots, and another for the monthly/quarterly TTB reports. I’ve spent countless hours reformatting and maintaining links between these spreadsheets only to have the file corrupted and one one occasion, my winemaker’s laptop was stolen with the only copy of the previous year’s TTB reports on it! As the DirecTV ad goes, ‘don’t be that me’.

Every off the shelf system should be able to at least dual role a loss/gain entry, but that’s not the case even with some of the expensive ones. The issue emanates from the original design and data architecture and some popular systems still treat loss/gains separately from tracking and compliance reporting. The issue is even muddier when considering composition and COLA compliance but we’ll address that when discussing Scalability.  A properly engineered system will exploit the efficiency of a single data entry for multiple uses. The bonus comes with a system that also can easily report all those loss/gains for easy review AND audit track who/when/what-why they occurred – when the TTB asks you during an audit.

VINX2’s work orders have an inbuilt fail safe to ensure losses and gains are recorded appropriately, regardless of your login permissions.

There are an abundance of additional specific examples we could explore, like; easy corrections/undo/reverse options without calling tech support, creating custom searches/reports and saving them for one click access, clickable dashboard displays, export of nearly everything to Excel (we can’t fully wean ourselves from it), produce a completely filled in TTB report with 1-click AND see the individual lots that totaled on the report AND be able to fix and redo on the fly, and much more…

I’d be happy to talk to you about your specific needs and how I can help, just request a free demo and let’s get started.

Patrick Baker

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