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Can LWIN fine wine codes become the ‘ISBN’ for wine?

By its nature, fine wine is awash with subjectivity and personal interpretation. Say ‘DP’ to anyone in the trade, and chances are they’ll instantly know that you’re talking about Dom Pérignon; mention ‘Grange’, and Penfolds’ flagship wine springs to mind. Some might content themselves with saying ‘Lafite’, while others will prefer the more formal ‘Château Lafite Rothschild’ (and a few will hyphenate the name).

boxes of wine in the store top view three bottles of wine in a box for delivering wine for the holidays

It’s a level of precision that will only excite the more nerdy members of the wine community – and magazine sub-editors – but getting these details right is vital to the smooth running of the global fine wine marketplace.

This is especially true where computers are involved (which, these days, is everywhere) – because, unlike people, they don’t cope well with nuance; instead they need a universally recognised reference point from which to identify the product they’re describing, recording and helping to transport around the world.

This is where LWINs come in. The Liv-ex Wine Identification Number is a universal code applied to individual wines in order to identify them accurately and consistently across multiple layers of the supply chain. “Ultimately, it helps navigate bureaucracy,” explains Nick Palmer, head of product at Liv-ex. “It’s really about clarity and removing any ambiguity or doubt… [Otherwise] it’s very, very easy for people to get crossed wires, and for expensive and embarrassing mistakes to happen.”

The ultimate aim is the swift, efficient and error-free exchange of information about wines around the world, streamlining (as much as possible) the time-consuming and frustrating paperwork associated with international trade, and avoiding the need to re-key, copy and paste, and duplicate data entries. That’s an obvious benefit to the companies involved, but also to the final consumer, who gets the right wine delivered quickly and efficiently – probably without even realising that LWIN exists.

The obvious analogy is with the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) used by the publishing industry – and Palmer would love LWINs to achieve a similar status: universally accepted and operating quietly in the background – taken for granted, even. “If it’s invisible, then it’s done its job,” he says.

There’s more than one type of LWIN, depending on the granularity of the detail. Liv-ex gives the example of Château Léoville Barton:

  • LWIN7: Léoville Barton: 1012361
  • LWIN11: Léoville Barton 2009: 10123612009
  • LWIN16: Léoville Barton 2009, 75cl: 1012361200900750
  • LWIN18: Léoville Barton 2009, 12x75cl: 101236120091200750

The benefits of the system have come into sharper relief at a time when the global supply chain has become more stretched and pressurised than ever before, owing to a confluence of factors including the Covid-19 pandemic, shipping container shortages and, on a more local level, Brexit.

Wryly describing the UK’s exit from the European Union as “an interesting predicament for us”, Palmer says LWIN has played a vital role in negotiating the supply chain difficulties of the past few years. “We move a lot of wine across borders at Liv-ex,” he explains. “We’re seen as a UK company, but we have a huge amount of ins and outs across the Channel to France and Italy, as well as to Asia and the US. We had to make this work because otherwise we were going to struggle.”

LWINs have been around for more than a decade now – the system was developed internally in 2011 – and, over the years, they have become a vital tool for the business. “LWIN underpins all of Liv-ex,” says Palmer. “If we didn’t have it, our systems wouldn’t work. It all pivots around LWIN.” That’s everything from trading to logistics, data and research.

It also means that, by default, Liv-ex has been constantly road-testing and tweaking the LWIN system over the years, in line with the growth and increasing diversity of the fine wine scene. Now there are more than 140,000 different wines and spirits assigned their own unique LWIN number.

That’s all very well, but LWIN would have very limited benefits if Liv-ex were the only company using it. By its nature, the system becomes more effective, and more comprehensive, as more businesses adopt it for their own products. This includes not only the world’s wine merchants, but also an increasingly broad range of other businesses.

This evolution is facilitated by the fact that LWIN is open source, meaning that anyone can use it, for free, under the terms of a relatively flexible Creative Commons Licence. Liv-ex’s Wine Matcher tool aims to smooth the system’s integration, and ‘live’ updates can be provided via APIs (Application Programming Interfaces).

Price comparison website Wine Searcher has now added LWIN codes to its database, which it is hoped will enable merchants to upload details of their wines with greater speed and accuracy. Antonio Galloni’s Vinous publication also uses the system.

A more diverse group of users opens up the opportunity to add more data points to LWIN: not just the fine detail of a wine’s origin (region, sub-region, site, parcel and classification), but also pricing and even drinking windows and critic scores.

In the future, it might also include label images, and auction data as well – in Palmer’s words, anything that is “useful for merchants to tell a story and create a sales narrative”.

As the scale and complexity of LWIN increases, accuracy remains vital. The system employs a contributor model – superficially similar to Wikipedia – but Liv-ex aims to keep it tightly regulated, offering training in the use of the system to potential contributors.

The company has also, says Palmer, “invested in some smart people” to help build the database, along with relations with institutions such as Plumpton College, Hochschule Geisenheim University and Kedge Business School Bordeaux. Feedback, including requests for clarifications and corrections, is welcomed.

The ambition for the future is for LWIN to continue to expand, both in size and influence. The UK Government has identified it as an international standard that it wants to pursue as part of its Border 2025 Strategy, which aims to streamline international trade in a post-Brexit world.

Meanwhile, the nature of the system means that it continues to grow naturally as the world of fine wine grows ever larger and more complex. “I think it’s probably proved its purpose over the past few years,” says Palmer. “It’s relatively simple to create a list of wines from Bordeaux, but the system is designed to understand regions, and to bring new regions in.

“So, if a wine from Croatia is relevant to the customer, then we will create it for them. In this way, the system is growing organically, based on the interests and demands of the Liv-ex network.” And, given the ongoing expansion and diversification of the fine wine scene, it should continue to do so.

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