By: Gerald Dlubala
The proper bottling of your wine is important. Timing, experience, state of the art equipment and expert knowledge are critical to the wine’s integrity, taste and shelf life. However, many wineries don’t have the budget for all the intricate machinery needed to bottle wine properly, or the expertise and availability of dedicated technicians to keep bottling equipment running at peak performance.
Mobile bottling has filled that void, and for good reason. The average production winery may only need a week to 10 days for product bottling a year, making it hard to justify the number of resources it takes to purchase, run and maintain an in-house bottling line. Some wineries have chosen to let go of their in-house bottling machines, citing the amount of maintenance, upgrades and training that goes into keeping up a system that remains idle most of the year. Others have used mobile bottling since their inception. The benefits of using mobile bottling include utilizing the resulting space for more useful purposes, saving money once used on necessary machinery and technology upgrades, and the use of industry experts rather than needing to train employees on the ins and outs of the bottle machine each year.
Quality Bottling with Experienced Professionals
Dave Scholz, President of Signature Mobile Bottlers, knows the importance of bottling in maintaining the integrity of a winemaker’s product. He operates his mobile bottling company as if the wine he’s bottling is his own. Reflecting this, Signature Mobile Bottlers offers the same quality and convenience of having a permanently installed bottling system, but in a customized trailer that comes to you when you need it and out of the way when you don’t. The winery need only provide power, employees to assist, and the consumables, meaning bottles, labels and closures. The price for bottling with them starts at about 20 cents per bottle.
“After your wine has gone through all the necessary stages of filtration and is in a storage or holding tank, we’re ready to bottle,” said Scholz. “Our trucks back up to your dock, and the wine is pumped to our trailer to begin the bottling process.”
That process starts with the empty wine bottles being fed onto an unscrambling table where Signature uses inverted bottle cleaning and nitrogen to expel any debris while simultaneously removing oxygen from the bottle. Since nitrogen is heavier than air, the bottles are turned upright and conveyed to the filler while remaining nitrogen filled. A gravity-fed rotary filler dispenses the wine into the oxygen-free environment, pushing the nitrogen up and into the bottle’s headspace. Auto leveling devices ensure exact fill levels before quality sealing by corking or screw cap. Corks are compressed and driven into the bottle under vacuum, and screw caps are installed using 400 pounds of downforce.
A final nitrogen dose using Chart Industries dosing machines form and create the seal between cap and bottle. Mechanical arms with rollers adjusted with precise tolerances form the threads and safety seal for perfect capping. Signature Mobile Bottlers use multi-head capsule spinners to apply Tin, Polylam or Aluminum capsules to provide that complete, finished bottle look. Labels are applied using Impresstik Vacuum belt labelers, so the winery must have the labels prepared to the correct specifications. Once the wine is bottled, sealed and labeled, the bottles make a U-turn and are conveyed back alongside the trailer wall to be packed and sent out ready to ship.
“We bottle everything at roughly 60 bottles per minute, which gives us 1,800–2,000 cases per day,” said Scholz. “We’ve found that’s a good rate, both for bottling and the human side of the process. Additionally, changeovers between varietals can take place more quickly at this speed, averaging about 15 to 20 minutes per changeover versus an hour on higher speed lines. We do have a high-speed truck available if someone needs faster speeds, but the 60 bpm rate is a reasonable daily output and seems to work best for our customers.”
Scholz told The Grapevine Magazine that with 15 mobile bottling trucks on the road, Signature Mobile Bottlers have the largest fleet in the business. “We use our bottling trucks nearly every day. Every harvest, our trucks are torn down to replace normal wear parts and be put through a comprehensive maintenance program that keeps our machinery tolerances at original factory specifications. Our trucks and systems are continually updated and serviced, virtually eliminating the chance of breakdowns during the critical timeframe of bottling. On top of that, our technicians are on the job every day, bottling wine under every type of condition and specification, rather than being a general employee that is expected to also run a bottling system for a few days out of the year. They’ve seen most issues and know how to react on the spot.”
“We’ve been doing this for 31 years, so I’d like to think we’ve learned some things,” said Scholz.
Mobile Bottlers Become Partners in the Winemaking Process
Brandon Dixon is the general manager and executive winemaker for Noboleis Vineyards in Augusta, Missouri. Noboleis Vineyards has successfully used mobile bottling services since 2011.
“We’ve been with Old Woolam Custom Bottling since the company’s inception,” said Dixon. “The mobile bottling service that Old Woolam provides fixes all of the problems that we had when we bottled our wine on a manual line. The manual line consisted of a rinser, sparger, six-spout gravity filler, corker, capsule spinner and labeler and took six people to run efficiently. Even then, it was still a very slow process compared to an automatic bottling line, and our wine was still being exposed to a fair amount of oxygen. On top of that, it was a constant headache to keep the bottling line in proper working order for when we needed it. Conversely, there is very little oxygen pick up using an automatic line, and our maintenance responsibility is zero, so it became an easy decision for us to switch to a mobile bottling service when one became available.”
Dixon told The Grapevine Magazine that by using a mobile bottler, he can bottle considerably more wine in a day while using only four people, and can do it using only three if needed. Noboleis typically bottles between 2,000 and 2,500 gallons per day, a significant increase over the 300 to 400 gallons using their manual line.
“Brent Baker, the founder of Old Woolam Custom Bottling, is always there on bottling day,” said Dixon. “He sets the line up to our specifications, steam sterilizes it, and is responsible for keeping it running efficiently during bottling. The only hurdle we had to overcome to be able to use a mobile bottler was to install a dedicated electrical circuit and a specific type of outlet so the bottling line could be plugged into our power.”
“We start to schedule and prepare for bottling about four to six weeks in advance. Once we have a date scheduled with Old Woolam, we order all of our bottling supplies,” Dixon said. “Prior to the day of bottling, all of the wines we’re bottling are filtered to 0.45 microns and finished however would be appropriate for that particular wine’s style. On the day of bottling, we set up the filter again because we will run the wine through the filter just before it goes into the bottling line. We use 0.45-micron pads and a 0.45-micron absolute membrane filter. This ensures that our wine is sterile as it goes into the bottling line. This step is just a precautionary step that helps us winemakers sleep at night! As we are setting up the filters, the bottling lines are being steam sterilized. The set up takes about 60-90 minutes, and then once everyone is ready to go, bottling starts.”
“Old Woolam offers the option of corks or screwcaps for closures,” said Dixon. “The only real limitation with using an automatic bottling line is the size and shape of the bottle that we can use. There are several parts on the line that need to be changed out when changing the size and shape of the bottle. Old Woolam has the change parts for all of the standard sizes and shapes, as well as a few non-standard sizes. Old Woolam is typically able to meet all of our bottling needs except for a few exceptions. We have a few small volume specialty wines that we use irregular-shaped bottles for, and we do continue to bottle those wines on our manual line.”
Notably, many mobile bottlers use gravity fillers, making them unable to bottle carbonated or under-pressure wines. Dixon told The Grapevine Magazine that it isn’t a big deal for Noboleis because they don’t currently have a need or the equipment necessary to carbonate their wines.
“When looking for a mobile bottler, it’s important for wineries to look for a great working partnership like the one I have with Old Woolam,” said Dixon. “The prices are fair, he’s reliable, hardworking, and goes out of his way to make sure our expectations are met. At the end of the day, I would never want to go back to bottling all of our wines on a manual bottling line. It wouldn’t be feasible given the volume that we have grown into. We would spend all of our time bottling!”