The real deal: smart-labels protect alcohol authenticity

The Telegraph

March 16, 2016

Is smart labelling the way forward in the battle to protect authenticity and prevent the counterfeiting of alcoholic products? 

Victoria Moore investigates

 

The sherry bodega Barbadillo unveiled a very special new wine last month. Versos 1891 is an extremely limited edition bottling of amontillado from a cask in the Barbadillo family vaults that was originally given to Manuel Barbadillo as a christening present in the late 19th century. The wine is incredibly powerful and concentrated. Only 100 bottles have been filled; each one costs £8,000.

To protect the authenticity of this precious wine, Barbadillo turned to a Norwegian company called ThinFilm which specialises in printable electronics. As the cunning and incidence of wine counterfeiting rises, producers are increasingly finding the onus is on them to guard the reputation of their brands. Bottles may be engraved and numbered. What ThinFilm offers is a smart-label that carries information about the wine in the bottle but also, crucially, can sense whether the winery seal remains intact. If the bottle has been uncorked, its contents removed, then refilled with a cheap wine before being closed back up to look as good as new, the sensors on the smart label can announce this to a potential auctioneer or buyer with the tap of a mobile phone.

ThinFilm developed its first smart-labels for use on alcoholic products in conjunction with Diageo, who released the smart-labelled Johnnie Walker Blue Label last year. The company also works with the Chinese-owned wine producer Ferngrove, which is based in Australia.

“Ferngrove told us that 1.9billion bottles of red wine are sold in China every year and that up to 70 per cent of it isn’t what it claims to be on the label,” says ThinFilm CEO Dr Davor Sutija. “What ThinFilm can do with the new OpenSense labels is give drinkers confidence in the authenticity of the product.”

The tamper-evident seals have a tail that physically goes over the closure – be it cork or screwcap. If the cap has been unscrewed or the cork pulled, this information is electronically stored in the label. This can be relayed to a mobile phone through NFC (Near Field Communications), the same technology used by Apple Pay using, “an electronic signature that is impossible to spoof,” according to Sutija.

The label also carries information about the product. “Advertising is moving more and more into the digital space. One of the ways brands can really engage with their consumers is by making their packaging interactive – it spreads the idea that you’re part of the in-group, it has cachet.”

“As we move forward, the expectation is that more and more everyday objects will become part of our electronic life. Our phones are the agents for this.”

Of course ThinFilm’s OpenSense label makes an important assumption: that the bottle would have to be opened in order to remove the contents and refill with something cheaper. The arrival of the Coravin, which can extract wine almost invisibly from a bottle by inserting a thin needle through the cork has made some auctioneers nervous: what if fraudsters are able to invent the reverse-Coravin – a machine that can refill the expensive empty?

“That would have to be a very meticulous process,” says Sutija. “It might work on one bottle but not on thousands.” At the luxury end of the market, this will remain a worry, as counterfeiters and producers vie to be one step ahead of the game.