Kiwi wine tech shakes up industry

It all began with a Masters university assignment to commercialise technology designed to age bananas. Pretty soon, the ‘Wine Grenade’ team was over-subscribed for its innovative wine-ageing product which is now influencing wine production around the world.

Hamish Elmslie, Chief Executive of Wine Grenade, explains the journey: “As part of our Master of Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship degree at Auckland University, we had to take existing intellectual property and map out possible commercial pathways. Our research identified 30 or 40 different commercial opportunities before we settled on wine maturation.”

The Wine Grenade – manufactured in the company’s Avondale facility – at first glance looks like a humble tube, but its ability to speed up the process of ageing wine by up to 60 per cent is proving to be a game changer. Wine makers from small boutique vineyards and large commercial players are deploying the device to de-risk the wine ageing process and provide greater control to vintners, ultimately creating a better quality product.

The Wine Grenade is an internet-connected device that sits at the top of a tank and slowly diffuses tiny amounts of oxygen through a permeable tube or membrane into the wine. This process achieves the same chemical reaction as ageing wine in oak barrels - in less time and at a fraction of the cost. By maturing wine in this way, winemakers can shave up to $1.50 off the cost of every bottle without compromising taste or quality.

Customers like Sacred Hills Wines in Hawke’s Bay (six 11,000 litre tanks of Pinot Noir and Merlot) and Auburn James in the Napa Valley (three 4,000 gallon tanks of cabernet sauvignon) are now into their second or third vintage using the Wine Grenade, giving them the opportunities to try new wine varietals.

Key to the success of Hamish and his team was linking up with the NZ Product Accelerator, funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The NZ Product Accelerator undertakes research in products for innovative manufacturing companies, to enable them to compete and grow their markets.

Brian McMath, Business Development Manager at the NZ Product Accelerator, says they were really excited when Wine Grenade approached them for assistance. “It was clear that Wine Grenade had the business acumen and engineering talent down, but we were the missing piece of the puzzle for the science side of things – which we were happy to help with,” Brian says.

One of the hardest things about commercialising R&D is having access to the right talent and capital. “The Product Accelerator certainly helped with the talent,” Hamish says, “and we have also benefited from the support of angel investors and a generous grant from Callaghan Innovation.”

Wine Grenade is already in use in France, Australia and the United States. So what will this mean for wine lovers around the world? “Greater consistency year after year at a reasonable price,” Hamish says categorically. And what about the romanticism of ageing wines gracefully in vintage oak barrels? “There will always be a role for barrel aging and some wine labels will want to position themselves as traditional producers. Our customers are the winemakers wanting to improve, experiment, and ultimately have greater control of the wine making process.”

As for Wine Grenade, the future is looking much more than glass half full.