Bottling on wheels
A bottling line can be a prohibitive investment for small wineries.
Wine can move through a mobile bottling line at a rate of 65 bottles per minute.
When it's time for a wine to leave the cozy confines of a barrel or tank, winemakers know there won't be anything between their product and the big, bad world but a glass bottle. "It's the last defense," says Mike Haddox, owner of the Winemakers Loft in Prosser, Washington. "If you blow that, you really pay the price."
Haddox makes wine for ten different labels, including his own Michael Florentino, and offers advice and guidance to the four other tenants in the loft at the Port of Benton's North Prosser Business Park. He's well versed with every step of wine marketing, from buying grapes to equipping a crush pad. But bottling is not on his list of favorite things. "I hate bottling," he said bluntly. "It takes a lot of time, it's chaotic, and it's nerve-wracking."
Whether done the old-fashioned way (by hand) or with high-speed, high-tech machinery, bottling has all the thrills of a factory assembly line. But it's one of the most important steps in the long process of turning premium grapes into fine wine. Bigger wineries often choose to handle the job in-house. But at $50,000 for a bottling line, that can be a prohibitive investment for smaller, boutique wineries.
Those wineries often turn instead to mobile providers like Custom Mobile Bottling, based in Benton City, Washington, or Signature Mobile Bottlers, headquartered in Clackamas, Oregon. These firms offer entire bottling lines fitted into semitrailers, portable factories-on-wheels that crisscross Pacific Northwest wine country, helping hundreds of producers move their product out of the barrel and onto the shelf. They offer convenience and flexibility, and enable winemakers to share the cost of a bottling line.
But perhaps the biggest advantage of working with a mobile bottler, said Haddox, is their expertise. Mobile bottlers bring well-tuned equipment that can handle the entire process, from sparging and filling to labeling. The operators use the machinery hundreds of days every year, instead of the one or two months a relatively large producer can expect to spend on bottling. And most will give clients their expert advice on bottles, closures, and labels, down to details like size, paper stock, and type of glue.
Bill Hamlin launched Custom Mobile Bottling after a long career spent bottling and packaging fruit juices and wine, first at Ocean Spray's plant in Markham, Washington, and then at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Paterson, Washington. "Everything I do is designed to improve the winemakers' efforts," he said. "I'll be bold enough to say that I can improve their product."
Hamlin's truck features a bottom-feed volumetric filler, designed to minimize splashing as the wine is transported into bottles. After the bottles are vacuum-sparged, wine pumped from tanks into the filler is measured into the bottles, and then automatically leveled to a consistent volume. Bottles can be sealed with one of six different closures, including natural corks, screw caps, glass, and even the Zork closure, a synthetic cork system developed in Australia featuring a tear-away capsule that reveals a champagne-style synthetic closure.
In addition, Hamlin offers equipment for filtering wine, along with the expertise he earned as a general control sanitarian certified by the American Bakers Association. That knowledge, he explains, can protect the best efforts of a winemaker. Yeasts that escape the filtering or fining process, for example, can result in refermentation in the bottle, turning a sweet wine acidic. And while the alcohol content sanitizes wines by killing any microbes, the residue not filtered out what Hamblin calls insipient spoilers can alter the flavor.
Signature Bottling operates seven different trucks, according to President David Scholz, including two permanently assigned to the Walla Walla area. Each has a 16-spout filler and autoleveling device, and can operate at 60 bottles per minute. Like Custom Mobile Bottlers, Signature's trucks feature labelers that can accommodate single-web or double-web labels, as well as multiple types of closures.
And like Hamlin, Scholz cites his crew's expertise as an important component in his service, along with its lower cost. "We're more than just a funnel and a hand-corker," he said. His equipment arrives ready to run, in a sanitary environment. Wineries that invest in their own bottling line might devote as much as $50,000 to equipment, only to leave it idle most of the year. An 80,000-case producer, he says, might spend as little as 45 days a year bottling. "The rest of the time that machinery is sitting in a wet, caustic environment, and that's hard on equipment." Other costs include the floor space devoted to the line, and the cost of employees trained to operate and maintain it.
Both Signature Mobile Bottling and Custom Mobile Bottling emphasize their flexibility. Scholz has clients ranging in size from 1,000 cases, all the way up to large producers like Chateau Ste. Michelle, which utilizes his services for as many as 30 of their smaller labels and club wines.
Hamlin also works with a variety of clients, but pays particular attention to the needs of small wineries. Many of his clients call him to bottle their first vintages, and he's happy to work with runs as small as 500 or 600 cases.
Both Custom and Signature call themselves turnkey operations, providing all mechanical needs, along with an operator to oversee the operation. Wineries must provide a crew of six to eight people to tend the different stations along the bottling line, including a forklift operator.