The wine industry is constantly faced with new trends, challenges and the pressure to stay ahead of the competition. With that comes the opportunity to innovate.
Each year, Wine Industry Network recognizes five wine industry innovators — not just for their impressive ingenuity or technical advances — but because of how their product and/or service betters the North American wine industry.
By Laurie Wachter
Mike Slone grew up in Kentucky bourbon country fascinated with the craftsmanship of bourbon barrels and distillery rickhouses. When his parents moved to Orange County, Calif., in the ’90s, he quickly realized that wine was central to the state in the same way bourbon was to Kentucky.
“The idea for COGNI hit me one night,” says the founder of Simple Labs. “I realized there was no technology for barrel aging; it was just putting the wine in the barrel and hoping for the best. I realized my user-experience (UX) design capabilities from developing mobile apps could apply to winemaking.”
Slone explains his approach to innovation, saying, “It’s about seeing what’s not there. You see a gap and try to imagine the ideal way to fill it. Steve Jobs’ approach directly influenced me. He didn’t sell products, he sold experiences.” And Slone’s expertise is “translating the experience of people.”
He started researching solutions already on the market or patent-pending and soon realized none of them would fully plug the gap he saw. So, he set out to understand the winemakers’ point of view. It took him more than a year of talking to winemakers, engineers and business people for his idea to gel into a design solution he could develop.
“I was lucky,” he says. “I had this idea but didn’t know anything about winemaking or building a business. Then COVID-19 hit, and people I normally couldn’t reach had the time to talk to me. I’d ask my 20 questions and tell them, ‘Be my critic. I want to hear the bad stuff. What’s missing? What are you going to need?’ They would give me things to research and try to solve.”
Eventually, he developed the idea far enough to buy a 3D printer and start tooling different designs for the device that would go in the barrel. The engineering and electronics teams at Simple Labs then began developing working prototypes. The device he designed is a barrel insert that continuously monitors the wine’s temperature, humidity, free and molecular SO2, pH, acetic acid/VAs, ethanol/alcohol, phenol/guaiacol, internal pressure and fill level.
From there, the Simple Labs teams focused on building the COGNI SaaS platform that delivers alerts when levels slip out of user-set tolerance ranges and a dashboard where winemakers can see daily data for a single barrel or look at many barrels over a longer period. They can filter and select the focus of the data and see a graphic visualization or ping a barrel so they can find it in the barrel room – like using a key fob to find your car in a parking lot.
COGNI has working prototypes at four prominent wineries in Napa and will begin selling the product by the middle of 2023. Slone emphasizes that the device does not extract wine or let it pass through the device, which uses food-grade materials to ensure nothing can grow on it. Instead, the wine touches the bottom of the enclosed chamber around the sensors to provide the wet surface needed to measure pH.
One of COGNI’s most significant benefits for wineries of any size is cost savings. Slone estimates that a small winery with 2,500 barrels spends $650 per lot of barrels yearly on lab tests, while a winery with 15,000 barrels has a budget closer to $791 per lot. With COGNI, that small winery would spend only $504 per lot yearly (for a savings of more than $8,700), while the large winery would save nearly $60,000, with only a $672 expenditure per lot for the COGNI platform.
“I think we can also help the industry evolve,” says Slone. “Winemakers may top off every six to eight weeks or every three months. We can change their process from the calendric approach to topping off only when the wine recedes to a certain level and they’re getting oxygen exposure. The COGNI device will tell the winemaker, ‘It’s time to top off.’”
Laurie Wachter brings her expertise in consumer behavior, food & beverage marketing and direct-to-consumer sales to writing about innovation and challenges in the consumer packaged goods industry. She works with a global client base from her Northern California Wine Country home.