On the trail of the wholesome vine

You can't get much more traditional than the wine makers of the Ribera del Duero. This region, some 120 miles north of Madrid, has vines growing at almost 3,000 feet and produces some of the finest red wines in the world.

The 6,500 farmers there are simple country folk - in the past they would have been called peasants. They have television and telephones, but not much else, and are not highly educated. Which makes it quite surprising that each grower has a smart card loaded by the Consejo Regulador de la Denominacion (the body that controls quality) with all the information about his vineyard. This shows its size in hectares, the type of grape, the age of vines, all grape movements over 10 vintages and - crucially - the amount they are allowed to sell. This is strictly limited to keep quality up.

The system is apparently the first of its kind. Ribera del Duero is a fairly new wine region - the Denominacion was formed in the early 1980s - but the Consejo is determined to leapfrog the better-established regions by using high-tech quality control.

At harvest time the smart card has to accompany the grapes to the 70 bodegas (wineries), each of which has a 386 computer. The grapes are weighed and the information is transferred from the cards into these machines. A receipt is printed for the grower, as well as an indication of his remaining allowance for the harvest. The collected data is downloaded nightly into the Consejo's mainframe computer. This provides the bodegas with an audit trail of the grapes and, most important, provides the Consejo with a daily update on the harvest and wine-making potential.