Choosing a Mobile Bottler for Your Winery: Questions to Ask Before Hiring One

By: Alyssa Ochs

Last year, we published an article about the pros and cons of mobile bottling and who’s been using this service in the wine industry. Now we’re taking that conversation one step further to discuss how to pick the right mobile bottler for your operations, the various options that mobile bottlers have to offer, and what questions to ask when you decide to package your wine this way. Mobile bottling options are helping wineries keep costs down, but costs can also skyrocket with a poor bottling plan in place.

Making the Decision to Go Mobile

Mobile bottling typically involves a specialized vendor coming onsite with a trailer, bottling unit, and hoses to pump wine from a winery’s tanks to the mobile bottler’s filling tanks. Wineries are usually responsible for providing the bottles, closures, and labels, as well as some onsite staff to ensure everything goes smoothly and to assist with the labor.

Wineries often choose mobile bottling to save space, time, and money, or they may go this route to entrust the job to someone with more experience and increase bottling speed. Companies specialize in this process to take the headaches out of onsite bottling, although wineries still need to meet certain requirements to ensure a successful bottling day. Before bottling day, for example, wineries need to complete the filtration process, ensure proper wine temperature, have the necessary equipment and staff available, and have labels that work with the bottler’s machinery.

When it comes to deciding whether or not to choose mobile bottling, key factors to consider are whether it is cost-effective to own your own bottling line and how many bottles and cases you are looking to produce per season.

“As a winery just starting out, it made sense for us to utilize the capital investment that would be required for a dedicated bottling line on other things that elevate wine quality,” said winemaker Ryan Prichard of Three Sticks Wines in Sonoma, California. “We were, and still are, a small winery so putting money towards equipment that we would only use a couple of days a year didn’t make sense when there were high-quality mobile bottling options available.”

Charlie Fauroat, winemaker for Pellegrini Wine Co. in Santa Rosa, California, told The Grapevine Magazine that his winery uses Peregrine Mobile Bottling for their bottling needs.

Pellegrini Wine chose this bottler because of the “excellent dissolved oxygen management, positive pressure filler to help minimize carbon dioxide loss, and a troubleshooting staff who care immensely about customer service and performance within their jobs,” Fauroat said.

Fauroat went on to share that mobile bottling has affected the way his winery operates because it “allows us not to have to truck wine offsite to bottle, further beating up the wine in this already hectic period for the wine.”

Differences Between Mobile Bottlers

While on the surface it may seem that mobile bottlers are all one and the same, there are actually quite a few differences in their capabilities and what they offer.

Bill Kreck, the founder of Mill Creek Vineyards & Winery and Mill Creek Mobile Bottling Services who spent 17 years in this segment of the wine industry, told The Grapevine that mobile bottlers can be classified as petite, small, and “big dogs” with regard to capacity. He said petite bottlers have a capacity that usually tops out at about 75 cases of wine per hour and uses hand-bottling equipment mounted on a small trailer. Small bottlers can produce around 150 to 250 cases per hour with automatic equipment in a large trailer that is equipped with conveyors to allow bottles to move without manual assistance. “Big dogs” can produce up to 100 bottles per minute so that a winery could expect to get up to 3,000 cases in an eight-hour day. These large vendors typically operate in 40- to 50-foot semi-truck trailers and offer advanced services, such as onboard nitrogen generators and bottle coding. While large bottling lines require more personnel to operate, they run very fast so there is a lower per-case labor cost than for smaller lines.

Some mobile bottlers stick to either just caps or just corks for wine closures, while others offer multiple options for wineries to choose from. Mill Creek Mobile Bottling first went into business in 2001, and Kreck said, “At that time, screw cap wines were reserved exclusively for low-end, low quality, mass produced wines and not at all appropriate for quality products from Sonoma County vintners.”

However, attitudes have changed about screw caps, and there are now many more mobile bottlers in the industry competing for winery clients.

“Many wineries have retained cork finish for reds but have converted to screw cap finish for their white wines, so if a bottler cannot do both, the winery is likely to find one that can,” Kreck said. “It would not be wise now to be a mobile bottler unless that dual closure option was available.”

In addition to screw cap or cork options, other custom options provided by mobile bottlers include PVC, polylam, or tin capsules and also bottles in 750ml, 500ml, and 375ml sizes.

Meanwhile, Mary McLaughlin of Ryan Mobile Bottling in Napa, California said that what sets her company apart from its competition is its people. This is another major difference among mobile bottlers.

“We have dedicated, talented staff who stay with us for the long-term, which enables them to be stronger operators who are familiar with our customers and their packages,” she said. “Also, our management team is actively engaged in field operations and are prepping, planning, and bottling on a daily basis.”

McLaughlin also told The Grapevine Magazine that all four, soon to be five, of Ryan Mobile Bottling’s trucks insert corks.

“We have two trucks that can apply screw caps – one of which can also apply LUX closures,” she added.

Mobile Bottling Costs

Costs can vary significantly between mobile bottlers, depending on the services offered and the region of the country. For example, East Coast Mobile Bottling charges a setup fee and minimum service charge of $1,500 and $2.75 per case for sterile filtration, bottle rinse, bottle sparging, filling, closure, capsule, and label. Other fees apply for bottle changes requiring complete reconfiguration of the entire line and when it’s necessary to change the wine or bottle height. Additionally, each change can reduce daily production by about 75 cases.

Old Woolam Custom Bottling estimated that a winery producing 10,000 gallons or 4,100 cases annually would need to commit to a $75,000 total investment and at least a $25,420 total annual cost to own its own bottling line. However, the total annual cost to have a mobile bottler come to this size of a winery would be more like $17,064, with no up-front investment for equipment.

Kreck of Mill Creek told us that there is generally a slight premium per case bottled for using a petite or small mobile bottler over a faster line and that labor is a significant factor in determining cost. However, he said that mobile bottlers usually have a fee structure that includes the following, with the cost of supplies, such as filters, sealing tape, and nitrogen or argon being extra:

In/out and spot the trailer and

hook up utilities……………………………….$300 – $600

Initial package setup for the

first wine of the day…………………………$100 – $200

A fee for package changeovers

(i.e. Bordeaux > Burgundy)………………..$100 – $200

Wine change fee

(after first three wines of the day)……..$100 – $200

Per case bottling and/or

labeling charge………………………………$2.10 – $3.00

Kreck also said that the most significant variable in the mobile bottling cost is speed and that important factors to consider when choosing a bottler are features, name recognition, and service. He estimates that a petite mobile bottling line that can produce up to 100 to 120 cases per hour would cost $100,000 to $175,000, a small line for around 100 to 250 cases per hour at $250,000 to $500,000, and a large line for around 250 to 350 cases per hour at $500,000 to $1.3 million. All of those costs increase if a trailer needs to be custom made, plumbed and wired, and a tow vehicle supplied to move it and support the equipment.

Questions to Ask a Mobile Bottler

Wineries looking to try mobile bottling for the first time can benefit from asking lots of pertinent questions up-front. Cost is always a top concern, so you’ll want to get a breakdown of mobile bottling charges and fees for your winery’s specific situation. You will also want to fully understand the services and equipment that a mobile bottler offers, such as screw-capping, to ensure the vendor meets your winery’s needs.

Bottle-filling speed is very important when you choose a mobile bottler, so ask vendors how many cases they can process in a day. However, you’ll need to know how much you want to bottle beforehand to ensure that the company can meet your case-per-day requirements. Also, ask about the bottle-per-minute speed because this can vary from one company to the next based upon the technology and equipment used.

Ask mobile bottlers about the size of their bottling trailer to make sure it will fit comfortably at your winery’s location. You should also have discussions early-on about a mobile bottler’s ability to work with your current mechanical and electrical capabilities. Other questions to ask include how many staff members should be onsite for bottling day, what preparations need to be done in advance, what the sanitation process entails, and how the bottler checks the line to ensure everything is going according to planned. If possible, try to see the mobile bottler at work to better understand what the process entails from start to finish.

Mobile Bottling Tips and Advice

There are many things that can go wrong in the bottling process if a winery and mobile bottler aren’t on the same page, including lost time, inefficiency, and broken equipment. This is why Kreck of Mill Creek says that communication is so important from the very first conversations about scheduling. A work order should be submitted weeks before bottling day to outline exactly what the winery needs to accomplish and list the number of cases of each wine along with details about the glass, cork or cap, foil, and labels to be used.

“If winemakers detest bottling, they often do not properly pay attention to details and that becomes the responsibility of the mobile bottler,” Kreck said. “An example might be that the winemaker wants the whites to be sterile filtered, then most of the reds to be unfiltered, but the last wine sterile filtered again. The bottler knows that once a sterile filter is removed, the line is no longer considered sterile and just putting a sterile filter back in the filter housings could disastrous. The bottler knows that according to the work order, they will come to the end of the day with a partially filled tank. Does the winemaker want to work overtime to finish the tank, be comfortable with an unfilled tank overnight, or rearrange the bottling sequence to finish tanks by the end of the day?  These are just a few of the issues that a mobile bottler would address and communicate options back to the winemaker.”

Meanwhile, David Crawford, vice president of Napa’s Top It Off Bottling emphasizes the need to plan ahead well in advance and start communicating with a mobile bottler over a year before your next anticipated bottling date. Consulting your mobile bottler about packaging decisions is also recommended to reduce hassles and save money.

“I always ask my customers to put me in direct contact with their suppliers so we can talk out what they have going on because I know how to ask the right questions and we deal with these people all the time,” Crawford said. “There is no advantage to hiding the ball on troublesome packaging issues. If you have a cap that doesn’t fit but you want to try it anyway, tell us ahead of time so we can plan for it.”

McLaughlin of Ryan Mobile Bottling agrees that communication is the key to a successful working relationship between a winery and a mobile bottling company.

“Make sure that all work orders are complete and accurate, and notify your bottler when there are changes,” McLaughlin advises. “Also, inventory raw materials to ensure you have received what you expected. Our time may be tightly scheduled and may not allow for us to wait while vendors make corrections.”

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