Industrial wineries can afford the luxury of state-of-the art bottling machines; glistening stainless steel assembly lines that automate the entire process from fill to cork to label. In scaled down versions cellar workers have to unload the new, clean bottles which are then fed, one by one, through a circuitous bottling path ultimately returned to the boxes from whence they came. And then there are the rest of us, smaller wineries who fill bottles using the traditional method. Traditional method - that's a nice way of saying by hand, using lots of help.
A Glimpse of a Typical Bottling Day
Just yesterday, in an attempt to replenish our stock of a customer favorite, we bottled 300 gallons of a white wine which yielded about 1,500 bottles - or a pallet (4'x4'x8' high) full of cases and then some. Here is an account of our bottling morning:
8:30am - Arrive at winery. Get instructions from winemaker.
8:35am - Clean and sterilize bottling line. Our bottling line is comprised of a bottle filter unit, a stainless steel cylinder housing unit that contains three membrane filters designed to remove anything larger than .45 microns (i.e., bacteria and other nasties). The entire pre-bottling line (filter) and bottle filling assembly must be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. The bottle filling machine is a six-spout filler with a 34 gallon reservoir that allows the filler "me" to nearly continually fill and replace six bottles in quick succession.
While this is happening others are bringing in the pallet of bottles, setting up the semi-automatic corker, a device that vacuums the headspace (i.e., the distance from the top of the wine to the cork) and inserts a closure/cork. The foil heater, a stainless steel unit designed so a bottle with a heat-shrink foil can be inserted, is plugged in and warmed up. And the last piece of equipment, the semi-automatic labeling machine, is set-up with the appropriate label to be affixed on each of the 1,500 bottles of wine.
9:30am - Getting Ready to Bottle. By now everything is cleaned and sanitized. One more task must be accomplished before we can begin to bottle. Next, I take a clean and sterile hose and connect it to the tank full of wine (the origin tank) and connect the other end of the hose to a diaphragm pump to gently move the wine from the tank through the membrane filter into the bottle filling reservoir.
9:35am - Bottling Time! Let me see if I can paint a word picture of how this looks: there are four of us, all facing the same direction and each working a different piece of equipment. I am working the first of the series of equipment (from left to right), the bottle filling machine. Directly behind me is a portable table filled with boxes of empty bottles waiting to be filled. In front of me is my 6-spout bottle filling machine. I insert each bottle into its respective spout and they fill, nearly simultaneously, and once filled I remove it and quickly replace it with a clean, empty bottle and pass the filled bottle to the cork machine operator.
The corking machine operator receives the full bottle of wine and promptly places the bottle into the machine, triggering the corker to insert a cork into the bottle. This takes about 1/2 of a second. The bottle is handed to the next station.
Another person is responsible for applying the decorative foil capsule onto the bottles. The corked bottle receives the foil top and is inserted into the heating machine. In about 1 second the previously over sized capsule is heated which nearly immediately shrinks the foil tightly to the bottle.
Next, the bottle is placed on the labeling machine and rotates as the labels become affixed. The labeled bottled are then placed into the awaiting boxes and when filled are loaded on the pallet.
12pm - Wine is Bottled! This was a relatively fast bottling day (only 300 gallons) and four people who had the opportunity to rotate jobs. After a quick lunch I went back to tear down and clean the bottling line.
12:30pm - Cleaning and Putting Away. Another round of cleaning and sanitizing is necessary before putting the bottling line away. As I've mentioned before, working in a winery is probably as much, if not more, about cleaning and sterilizing as it is about wine making. I may exaggerate a bit...but there is a ton of cleaning.
By 1:00pm the bottling line is cleaned and I am off on another cleaning job. There is always something to clean in a winery, or wine to move, and then more to clean after that.
The "traditional" method of bottling wine is labor intensive but much more interesting. During our bottling run I had a chance to hear stories about the winery owners historical ties to the land (his great, great grandfather grew up here) and how to deal with prolapsed uterus of a birthing cow. Well, that story will have to wait until another time.
Brad Johnson is a contributing writer for Make Mine Wine Magazine, an artisan winemaker, researcher, teacher, and proud member of the Eastern Iowa Wine Club. He Tweets as "Iowine"