Crush Me, Squeeze Me, Make Me Wine

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Grapevines tended with multigenerational devotion cover the hillsides in arching rows. They dominate an idyllic landscape of placid symmetry, as neat and orderly as a Disney attraction. The harmonized uniformity of the land is occasionally interrupted by grand buildings that sit like gaudy jewels on the knuckles of landscaped knolls. The conspicuous wineries of the Napa Valley are both a statement and an invitation: a statement of stunning attainment and an invitation to partake in the product that defines the region. Welcome to Wine World.

On the eastern side of the Napa Valley, just off the Silverado Trail, nestled in a secluded, park-like setting, sits Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. In 1974, Stag's Leap was a modest, family-owned operation with no employees and just enough temerity to enter a Paris wine tasting. Its submission was a cabernet unpromisingly dubbed "Cask 23" for reasons of anonymity and as a deterrent to judging bias. To the surprise of the French, who can be bellicose in matters of wine, the vintage won. Since then, Stag's Leap has enjoyed growing popularity, and the Winiarski family now employs 40 full-time workers and an additional 30 seasonal pickers, whose combined efforts produce 75,000 cases of wine each year.

"With growth came the need for automation," said Linda Forrette, Stag's Leap's MIS manager. In 1988, the winery purchased an AS/400 B10 to replace a cumbersome DEC system. It has since been upgraded to an F10. Forrette came aboard in 1989 to head the migration and to satisfy the demanding reporting requirements of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). The astute reader will recall that ignoring the ATF may turn into a matter of some gravity. When a regulatory agency has access to tanks, the prudent company will choose to send in those government reports on a timely and accurate basis.

Modern wine-making is a complex trade that includes elements of agribusiness, process manufacturing, marketing, and distribution. It is complicated further by draconian federal regulation. To support all of these business components, Stag's Leap chose a package affably christened WIMS: Wine Information Management System. It is the product of a Sonoma-based software and services firm, Gulson & Associates. The package, now installed in 35 wineries, was originally developed in the late '70s and has had a symbiotic relationship with IBM's midrange systems dating back to the S/34. It was designed to support medium to large wineries that do their own distribution. Modules include case goods inventory, government compliance, order processing, invoicing, sales analysis, and standard financials: accounts payable, accounts receivable, and general ledger.

The challenge for Stag's Leap was to establish order and inventory links between its cellar and its five warehouses, two of which are equipped with their own AS/400s. At some point in the future, those links may be extended to a rather large cave, but more on that later. Additionally, the winery has a retail/tasting room where point-of-sale transactions must be captured and uploaded to the host system.

Rejecting a full network implementation, Stag's Leap linked its computerized warehouses by modem to the host AS/400. "It's a low-cost, low-maintenance solution," said Forrette. The host system transmits orders and the warehouse system generates a bill of lading, from which workers pick cases of wine for shipment. Inventory levels are automatically adjusted. The noncomputerized warehouses receive faxes from the host AS/400. "Anything you can spool for printing, you can fax without paper," noted Forrette. "It saves us a lot of time and assures absolute accuracy." The winery's retail activity is captured on a PC and uploaded nightly to the AS/400.

Government reporting requirements are arcane and must be submitted on forms that appear to have been created during prohibition. The ATF has a pit bull fixation on the manufacture, sale, movement, and storage of things alcoholic. Not that it is the guardian of national sobriety; rather, that the government is intent on profiting from pleasure. Between 3-4 percent of the cost of each bottle of wine goes directly to federal taxes; that's over $1.00 per gallon. For good measure, the state tacks on another $.20 per gallon.

By federal fiat, the owner of the storage facility, not necessarily the owner of the wine, must report the movement of product and the remaining balance in bonded inventory. Wineries, in turn, are required to report how much product they bottle, how much bulk wine they purchase from outside vintners, how many cases have been transferred to bonded inventory (stored wine is not taxed until it is actually sold), and how much juice is left after the production process. The amount of excise tax varies with the alcohol content of the wine.

With multiple storage facilities and different varieties of wine, the manual calculations required to assess the company's tax liability were a nightmare, according to Forrette. "Now, the AS/400 automatically calculates sales and inventory by type, and twice each month it generates the required report. All it needs is a signature."

Wine-making is primarily a process, not a project. Years pass before many wines reach maturity, which makes the ancient art of wine-making dependent on modern storage technologies. At any given time, Stag's Leap may store up to 100,000 cases of wine that must be kept at precise and constant temperatures. A superior vintage can easily spoil if it is aging in substandard storage facilities.

The five warehouses Stag's Leap employs are carefully regulated to maintain ideal temperature and humidity. But power costs are high, and brownouts during hot California summers are not uncommon. To avoid the vicissitudes of public utilities, Stag's Leap is digging itself an innovative and time-honored solution. It is gouging a 30,000 square foot maze of caverns beneath Napa's rolling landscape. Underground, the temperature is a uniform 55 degrees year-round, and power to support an artificial environment is not an issue.

The symmetry of it is appealing. Ten thousand years after emerging from the cave, humankind returns, but this time armed with a selection of fine wines and an AS/400. Add a phone line and a modem, and I know more than one self-proclaimed computer nerd who could be quite happy there.

Currently, five PCs, eight terminals, three AS/400s, and three printers constitute the winery's hardware complement. "We want to move toward a client/server implementation," said Forrette. Stag's Leap, she said, will soon upgrade to a client/server version of WIMS. "We will install Windows on our PCs and give our users the ability to download information from applications like Excel and Lotus." The winery expects to continue growing and anticipates that the increased flexibility of a client/server environment will support its growth into the next century.

Since its heady win at the Parisian competition, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars has received a number of accolades but none, perhaps, more notable than a recent endorsement. "The White House called and ordered some chardonnay," recalled Forrette.

It was reassuring to know that, whatever government's failings, good taste wasn't among them. But given the recent budget squabbles and partial government shutdowns, I couldn't help but wonder, "Did they pay for it?"

"It took awhile," she said, "but eventually they did."

My faith in governance restored, I pondered the implications of having the White House in your accounts receivable system: It sure must be nice to send the government a bill for a change.

Victor Rozek has 17 years of experience in the data processing industry, including seven years with IBM in Operations Management and Systems Engineering.



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