I've always enjoyed volunteering with wineries. One local winery that I have helped out on a few occasions now is Northwest Totem Cellars, so when Mike Sharadin posted a note saying he was looking for a few volunteers for a Saturday afternoon of bottling, I jumped at the opportunity. The winery is located at the home of owners Mike and Kate Sharadin, located on the Redmond/Woodinville border. Mike has his own bottling equipment, but every winery does things a little bit differently. Mike stated that a lot of the smaller wineries have their own small bottling set-ups and once they reach a certain size (i.e. they reach a certain case production), they will utilize a mobile bottling truck. This truck is basically a bottling line on wheels and provides all the necessary equipment for bottling. Mike estimated that up to 85% of wineries in this area bottle using the mobile truck. At Northwest Totem Cellars, the bottling line is set up in an area designated for this purpose. The volunteers each had a specific responsibility in the line. Once we got going, we were bottling about 45 cases an hour! At 12 bottles to the case, that was a whopping 540 bottles that went by in just ONE hour of bottling. On this day we were bottling two separate wines. We started with the 2008 Qo-ne, which is a blend of 60% Cabernet Franc, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Syrah, and 2% Petit Verdot. We bottled up 102 cases of the Qo-ne, which comes out to 1,224 bottles! WOW. It doesn't hit you just how many bottles go through the line until you do the math on it! After a lunch break, catered by Kate Sharadin, we headed back out to bottle up the 2008 Sangiovese. We bottled 62 cases of the Sangiovese, or 744 bottles. It was a lot of fun to be a part of the process!
First, the wine (which at this point is in a large plastic tote) is raised up using a forklift to get a gravity flow into the bottle filler.
The beginning of our bottling line consisted of a volunteer bringing over cases of bottles and emptying the entire case onto a mat. The boxes are opened so that the bottles are upside down in the case box. That way you have 12 upright bottles when the case is quickly emptied. They then take the empty case box to the end of the line to use for the finished bottles. The next volunteer (for round #1 of bottling, this was me!) pumped argon into each bottle at a 4-count, one bottle at a time. The purpose of the argon is to preserve the wine once it is sealed. Argon is significantly heavier than air and sinks to the bottom of the bottle when it is pumped in. As the wine is added to the bottle, the argon and any air in the bottle is pushed to the top. The argon layer would sit directly above the wine and take up all remaining bottle space, pushing any excess oxygen out of the bottle. Then, when the bottle is sealed, there is no oxygen left in the bottle. Not all wineries use the same system when it comes to removing excess oxygen from wine bottles. Some will use nitrogen in a closed system. Because Mike did not have a closed system for adding gases available, this would be a less secure method for him. He also stated that some wineries use nothing but air.
The next volunteer took the bottles one at a time from the mat and placed them onto the machine that filled them with wine. The spouts on the machine had a rubber stopper that provides a seal when they bottle is placed on it. There are also two hoses going into the spout: one that filled the bottle with wine, and one that sucked out oxygen from the bottle. It had an automatic gauge that stopped filling when it reached a certain point.
The next volunteer (which was me during our second round of bottling) was in charge of pulling the bottles off of the filling machine when they were full and passing them on to the next person in the line, who put on the glass stopper. Wait, glass? You thought all wineries used either cork or a screw top for sealing bottles? Northwest Totem Cellars uses Vino Seal, a glass stopper by Alcoa, in efforts to be "more wine and environmentally friendly". These glass closures can be recycled and re-used. In addition, it is estimated by industry analysts that between 3-8% of all wine ends up contaminated with the chemical TCA. While there is plenty of debate over how often a wine obtains TCA or any other complications due to cork, Northwest Totem Cellars simply likes this system as it comes from a renewable source and can be recycled. Though a little more expensive than cork, they hope more wineries will give glass a chance and help this closure system become more widely used, as it is becoming in Europe. Made with a flexible plastic 0-ring, the stopper provides a sterile seal, preventing contamination or oxidation.
One issue that we experienced was the stoppers not staying on the bottles. Basically, when they were pushed on, they would just pop right out. This rejection by the bottles is due to poor quality control of the glass company that produces the wine bottles. Mike stated that, traditionally, they have experienced about an 8% rejection rate. When this happened, bottles were either corked using traditional corks (which the winery would then use in their tasting room), or we would empty the bottles back into the trough of the bottle filling machine. These flawed bottles are often gifted to home wine makers who can make the time and space available for the bottles and cleaning. The bottles are perfectly fine if one is using cork to seal them, they just don't meet the specific size requirements for the glass stoppers.
The next volunteer placed a small dot of glue on the neck of the bottle near the top. They then passed the bottle to another person, who put on a traditional aluminum neck foil, ensuring a mechanical protection and making it tamper-evident.
Next, another person took the bottles one at a time and placed them into a mechanical device that clamped down and sealed the aluminum neck foil onto the top of the bottle. The next person placed the bottle onto a machine that had the labels spaced perfectly on the roll and would roll and stick the front and back labels right where they need to be on each bottle.
After being labeled, the bottles were given to another volunteer that placed them into the case boxes that the empty bottles had initially come out of. A final person placed the full case boxes onto a pallet and voila! The bottling process was complete.
It may seem like we had a lot of volunteers for the jobs on the line. But, like I said before, we were bottling up about 540 bottles an hour. That's 9 bottles per minute! Each person had a unique job and kept quite busy with just that job. It was so wonderful to see the end product and know that I had a part in the process. A fun fact that Mike mentioned was that they have organized companies that want to do a "bottling party" for team building. It's a lot of fun and helps co-workers enhance their teamwork skills! I know I made some quick friends during the process, we really did have to learn how to work together very quickly. Overall, a great experience that I would most definitely participate in again!