[I wrote this for the ThingM newsletter that went out yesterday, but thought it may be of broader interest]
Wine keeps reappearing at the intersection of the digital world and the physical one. Bruce Sterling's pioneering book on the implications of ubiquitous computing, Shaping Things, uses it extensively as an example, but he wasn't the first to discuss it. Wine is the textbook example (literally) in the Information Architecture world, where the problem of organizing is often used to explain an approach known as faceted classification. Virtual Vineyard (arguably the first successful ecommerce website) launched before Amazon did.
Why? Our theory is that wine exists in two worlds: as a physical object and as an informational one. The informational object doesn't just exist as a way to help people select wine to drink, but the information about the wine becomes an important part of the process of collecting wine. Moreover, unlike other collectibles that exist as physical and informational objects (think Magic the Gathering cards), wine is a consumable. You can never get a complete set and what you have is always shrinking, so there's a perpetual pressure to gather new information to gather new wine.
The problem is that wine bottles are terribly difficult to track. As collectibles, there are market pressures to create scarcity, which leads many producers (especially of high-end wines) to avoid using the most common object tracking mechanism, the UPC barcode. Barcodes symbolize mass production to wine producers struggling to create scarcity, so they don't use them, or use them haphazardly. We feel this ends up backfiring on wine producers, creating obscurity instead. Wine is a classic Long Tail product: in other words, there's a huge volume of potential in the obscure end of the market, but despite wine's early entry as objects of cutting-edge technological consideration, it hasn't achieved nearly its potential.
We believe the core problem is that most wine is virtually untrackable in the information space. It's a physical object that has no anchor to which to attach data. There is huge potential in creating such anchors. Ulla-Maaria Mutanen created the Thinglink project to create "social objects" that "make it possible to 1) aggregate online discussion around particular items, 2) track their history, and 3) develop new ways of connecting through particular objects on the web." She's talking about handicrafts, but the same thing can--and should--apply to wine.
However, when I went to the Wine Industry Technology Symposium a couple of weeks ago, there was virtually no discussion of ideas like this, even as the group discussed the power of "Web 2.0" and social networks.
Since we're currently working on an RFID wine rack, we're thinking a lot about these issues. We would like the answer to be RFIDs embedded in wine labels (invisibly) coupled with open, shared communication standards for exchanging wine information. These should look forward toward the capabilities of the technology and the "social life" of objects that bridge the information and physical worlds, rather than trying to copy UPCs or ISBNs, as valuable as those have been. Until then, wine, that most textbook example of hybrid objects, will be frustratingly out of reach for consumers, who then will be themselves frustratingly unavailable to producers. It's a situation that could be much better (i.e. profitable and enjoyable) for everyone involved.