Line ‘em up! Selecting the Right Bottling Line for Your Winery

As you’re considering a multi-thousand dollar expenditure for bottle filler equipment, the last thing you want is a disposable flashlight. “Look at it as a long-term investment. There’s filling equipment on the market that reminds me a lot of an old disposable flashlight,” said Jay Langejans, North America Midwest and Canada sales representative for Fogg Filler. “Once the batteries were dead, you couldn’t put new batteries in it—you just threw away the flashlight and got another one. Our equipment is repairable, replaceable: the proverbial batteries are available for it, the light bulb is available for it. You can use that same flashlight for 50 or 60 years.”

This analogy proves a point: running a successful wine business doesn’t give you the luxury to throw good money after the wrong machinery. You’re selecting pieces to specifically maintain product integrity, reduce labor, avoid excess spillage and operate a line that allows you to fill from 10 bottles per hour (BPH) to 300 BPH during a high bottling run.

Many small producers may bottle by hand for years using gravity/manual single- or multi-spout fillers, ranging from $500 up to $3,500. If you have no plans to expand and don’t mind paying family and friends with lunch and wine for their assistance, your operation can function comfortably at this stage. A slightly greater volume may benefit from a semi-automatic filler with features such as “no container, no fill” designs to reduce spillage to zero. Averaging $3,000 up to $15,000, small- to medium-sized producers might benefit from this type of equipment upgrade.

Fogg Filler (foggfiller.com), in Holland, Michigan manufactures fillers, bottle and cap sanitizers, capping machines and sorters for multiple beverage industries. Langejans told The Grapevine Magazine that volume is the determining factor for expanding to a large-scale filler.

“The producer needs the numbers to step into filling equipment that offers the ability to do multiple bottle sizes and multiple styles, and platforms contained within one unit—gassing, filling, capping, all in one, with a machine that’s upgradable,” he said. “So they can start with just the filler, and if they decide to rinse their glass bottles, for example, that can be added with a modular system.” He added that once producers get into a filler, have it up and running and it’s a turnkey setup, “they wish they had done it five years earlier.”

When the Numbers Start to Make Sense

So what’s the magic volume number for an automated filler investment? Langejans suggested that if a producer is bottling 5,000 gallons a day or more in a bottling cycle, it’s time to consider options. “You’re going to have 10 people by the time they uncrate boxes, load up bottles, fill, cap and label bottles, then pack bottles—that’s pretty extensive use of all-manual labor compared to an automated line with one operator,” he said.

Bob DesRuisseaux agreed. He’s the chief winemaker and viticulturist at Prairie Fire Winery (prairiefirewinery.com) in Paxico, Kansas, just west of Topeka. “One of the biggest considerations is the size of your operation. An operation bottling 2,000, 10,000 or 100,000 gallons of wine annually will have very different equipment needs,” he said. “You also have to know what your end packaging will be in order to make appropriate equipment decisions. Also, whether you’re using a cork or a screw cap will also lead to different equipment considerations.”

Prairie Fire Winery, now in operation for 10 years, produces 9,500 gallons of 100 percent Kansas-grown wine, including blush and rosé, white, red, and sparkling—17 different labels in all. DesRuisseaux suggested examining production efficiencies to determine the right machine for your needs.

“The bottling line will only run as fast as your slowest process. Matching the speed and volume of your equipment throughout the process to avoid bottlenecks is important,” he said. “For example, our process can be broken down into the following steps: rinsing, gassing, filling, corking, labeling, capsuling and boxing. There isn’t any reason to buy one piece of equipment that completes the process much more quickly than the rest of the line. A bottleneck will occur at the slowest part of the process, and you won’t be done until it’s all passed through there. If one part has excess capacity, it will just end up sitting idle while the bottleneck catches up.”

DesRuisseaux said in his line, labeling created a bottleneck, so he’s considering a different labeling machine as a result.

Ross Liberti is the Director of Customer Success at Kinnek (kinnek.com)—a company located in New York City that serves as a conduit for small business to make purchasing decisions by connecting them with a network of suppliers. He offered another consideration of filler-choice breakdown.

“Since most wineries don’t bottle all year long—most do it in the winter or some time post-harvest—this means they’ll have to calculate the speed of the bottle filler they need based on the number of times they intend to bottle per week,” Liberti told The Grapevine Magazine. “For 6,000 cases, or approximately 72,000 bottles; and bottling three times a week, eight hours per day over the course of three months; you’d need a bottling line that can do at least 250 BPH. 250 BPH fillers can easily be two- to six-head that sell for as low as $500 and as high as about $7,000, depending upon the quality of the machinery.”

DesRuisseaux added that producers of all sizes should factor in their approach to bottling to evaluate equipment purchases. “Do you want to bottle everything you produce in a short amount of time, say a couple of days of a week; or do you bottle sporadically?” he said. “We tend to bottle when the weather isn’t cooperating for us to work in the vineyard. It allows us to keep our staff working on stormy or really hot days when we might not otherwise be productive. When you have a heat index over 100 degrees, it’s pretty nice to be able to retreat into a 60-65 degree winery.”

Expansion through various stages prompts filler choices, too. Liberti said it’s crucial for a winemaker to have a one-year, three-year and five-year plan from opening. Then forecast bottling needs accordingly.

“A producer might be a 5,000 case per year winery in at the first anniversary, but does he plan on doubling production by the fifth anniversary?” he said. “It might be fine to invest $7,000 and get four years into a 250 BPH bottling line. However, by the middle of that third or fourth year, he’ll need to start getting quotes on a faster line as the winery outgrows it or add the maximum number of filling heads allowed on the original bottling machine.”

Considerations for Making the Best Choice

After outlining production, forecasting volume and assessing the budget, examining the details matter.

Prairie Fire’s DesRuisseaux recalled an issue with manual corking. “Our first year, we only produced about 2,100 gallons and used a manual floor corker,” he said. “About 7,500 corks in, we realized we had to reduce this laborious part of the process quickly! It made a big difference and likely saved many shoulder injuries.” It wasn’t a hard decision to switch to an electric corker.

Langejans at Fogg Filler mentioned some producers are unaware that not all machines do the same job. “Some are just fillers,” he said. His company’s goal is to “never degrade the product. We want the quality of the wine delivered to our equipment to be the same in the bottle. Our advanced filler manufacturing technologies incorporate innovations through many steps of the process, from sanitizing to eliminating oxidization, to preserve the flavor of the wine.”

Kinnek created a free downloadable resource, available on its website, called The Bottle Filler Handbook. The handbook provides a compilation of quote requests, supplier interviews, and conversations with buyers to assist with decision-making. Liberti said this data is especially helpful to small- to medium-sized winemakers.

The Bottle Filler Handbook helps producers get started by teaching the fundamentals of how bottling equipment works and more importantly, show the most common bottle fillers purchased by similar businesses,” he said. “For example, you could look at what wineries are producing more than 5,000 cases in the past 12 months, and then get a feel for how well that option might work for you if others are enjoying success with it.”

Langejans said he appreciates the way members of the spirits and wine industry share knowledge. “It enables them all to grow. It even helps us out, because we can take customers into a location to see our equipment in operation, and they get a real-time report of its performance. In fact, we don’t even have to be there. Producers help each other.”

Both Langejans and Liberti stressed that partnering with companies that want to assist every step of the way as you explore growth options is a crucial component to a successful equipment investment. Their companies extend business-building practices such as unique financing options, deals on used equipment and opportunities for machine upgrade trade-ins. They also take pride in the customer support their companies provide to keep producers running at the top of their craft.

Liberti summed it up this way: “In my opinion, the more wine that’s out there, the happier the human race is!”