Bottling Day Tips and Tricks

two people talking in front of wine bottles on a bottling conveyor

By: Tom Payette – Winemaking Consultant

This article is a sequel to the previous article on bottling.  It applies not only to mobile bottling but also any bottling line quality control a winemaker may be a part of.  Each line has its own Critical Control points so use this article as a foundation to build on for your specific bottling operation/mobile bottler.  Winemakers – it’s time to be on your toes!

  Make sure your wines are ready, free sulfur dioxide adjusted and at the appropriate temperature for the bottling.  Makes sure the dissolved gases such as oxygen and carbon dioxide are where you want them and measured if possible.  The wine should be filtered to the appropriate micron rating prior to the days bottling and mixed well to provide uniformity in each bottle.  If chasing the wine surface, in the tank, downward with a nitrogen blanketing gas – be sure to have that system in place.

Start of sanitation:  Be sure the sanitation proce

dure of the bottling line is being done to satisfaction.  If steaming be sure to reference in a previous article on that subject and if performing a pressure hold test on the cartridge filter after steaming be sure to consult that article for details.  Be a team player to achieve the best possible sterile conditions prior to having the wine enter the bottling line.  Make sure corker jaws are clean and any areas that may affect the wines long term bottle integrity are well within range.

Inspect raw materials/dry goods:  The best time to look over the dry materials and packaging goods is upon receipt at the winery – allowing time for any potential corrections with suppliers.  Place capsules on bottles, inspect labels for proper size and printing, assemble packaging in full bottles and review the actual shelf presence.  During bottling be sure to monitor, by way of random sampling, the actual process before or while bottles are going through the line.  Empower case packers to keep a keen eye, also, as quality control agents, before they place finished bottles in the case box.

Bottles:  Be sure to inspect bottles during the bottling process.  Feel them – are they out of round?  Are the necks straight?  Feel inside for the proper irregularity inside the bottle assisting to keep the cork in (discard these bottles after doing so for sanitation reasons).  Check with calipers if any irregularities are found.

Corks, closure:  Inspect these items and test for any taints or manufacturing irregularities.  Soak corks and allow for taint issues to form or have them tested for TCA detection well ahead of bottling.  During the bottling process look for creases caused by corker jaws or disks (looking like small watermelon slices) coming off and identify why they are happening.  Lay bottles on their side and inspect for leaks.  Use a vacuum needle gauge to monitor any irregular pressures/vacuum inside the bottles randomly (remove cork after doing so and place back to be recorked).   [For a free parts list to build an inexpensive vacuum needle gauge to be used on cork closures please contact my office at 540-672-0387 and supply your postal mailing address.]   Identify your ranges of tolerance here if any.   Screw caps and their bottles have exact tolerances so make sure these two pieces of the package come together properly.

Oxygen:  Use an oxygen meter at critical control points to understand each process, its oxygen uptake and understand its ramifications.  The first place to sample for oxygen is in the tank.  The second place to check is after filling in a bottle and the third place is after closure of the bottle with a cork, screw cap or other closure.  Purchase an oxygen meter and use it once you understand how to use it and what the corrections are.

Labels:  Be sure to inspect how the labels are being applied and what the end results are.  Are the labels correct for the product?  What is their height position?  Is the back label appropriate?  Is the spacing between the two where desired?  Is the adhesion taking place?  Are the bottles sweating?  Are they level?  ( A great way to check this on the line is to find a level spot and compare two bottles against each other by spinning one bottle next to the other – is there a rise or fall in where the two labels meet?).

Conformity:  If the line used has many “heads” or stations be sure to compare the products from each station.  Are conditions equal and appropriate coming from each head?  If possible identify the problematic area and help the technician zero in on the problem.

Listen (One of the absolute best tools, even with ear protection):  Listen and use your ears while monitoring the line and while wearing ear protection.  You will be amazed at how many issues/problems you will notice simply by listening and hearing machines malfunction.  Examples of this could be the corker, vacuum assist to the corker, missed capsule application, bearings “singing” on foil spinners and other motors.  You will hear labeler mishaps.  Many air functions, solenoids and motor noises can be your first clue as to what machine to scrutinize and when.  Find the rhythms of your individual line and look for miss beats or out of ordinary sounds.

Smells:  Another area to be alert is our refined winemaker noses!  We seem especially adapted to smelling motors over heating, belts in distress, bottles that may have a moldy smell and corks with off odors.  Often wine that may be leaking at the bottling line can be detected by smell also but this can be less common.

Feel:  Another area I have found helpful is feel.  Feel machines as they are running properly.  Get to know their feel.  If machines are suspect of acting up – please your hand on the machine to see if the feel is the same as you recalled.  This can also be true of the track and actual floor of the bottling room.  Don’t overlook this obvious sense.

Sight:  Be sure, when the machines are running properly, to open the covers and to watch any mechanical cams, switches, chains, belts and learn what activates them and when.  Some people actually take movies/videos of the underneath of the machine so they can compare.  Be sure to keep your hands out of the machinery.  Once you have seen the machine and how it properly runs you will be better at diagnosing problems if and when they do occur.  Do where safety goggles when near the bottling line.

Manuals:  When possible have manuals on hand and ready for review.  Have a general knowledge of each machine and how to adjust it. 

Measure:  Measure anything that needs confirming to be affective.  This may include filler spout temperatures during steaming, membrane integrity after steaming, fill height level and consistency, cork insertion or screw cap tolerances, vacuum/pressure underneath the closure (see above under corks), temp of the wine, dissolved oxygen, label placement, capsule application and  the list goes on. 

Keep records:  Certainly everyday at the bottling line is a different one.  Some of this is inconsistent dry goods or packaging goods, sometimes it is the machines and other times it is the wine.  When encountering problems try and keep records as to what the issue was and suspected cause to be better prepared for future bottlings.  Fix the problems when the line is dormant or out of use if possible.

Supplier specs. – Start focusing on what is tolerable in your winery bottling process and start placing orders with suppliers detailing those specifications.   During these challenging economic times we are seeing many packaging material issues that have been frustrating to winery owners and bottling teams alike. Anything not conforming to the winery specifications supplied may give an opening for issues to be resolved favorably for the winery. 

Summary:  Be on your guard and take charge.  This is the last step while capturing, in bottle, all of your long hard work from the months and years previous.  The hard grape growing seasons forward.  This is a time to be extra critical of how the process is being done and to make sure your product has the best possible chance to be as superior and excellent as you had made it.  Speak up when appropriate, speak to operators and know when to have the line stop if the integrity of your wine is being compromised.  Make sure, also, to deliver to the bottling line a wine that is ready for bottling.  Be proactive, timely and keep a level head all while being extremely attentive that day.  Success!

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