Bottling. It’s a word that strikes fear in the heart of most self-respecting winemakers. All winemakers know that the best outcome to any bottling is for nothing eventful to happen. The worst is that a wine you’ve been tending like a baby for the past 6 to 24 months is destroyed in a blink of an eye.
We just finished a big bottling in April, where we bottled a bunch of summer wines— including the Vin Gris, the Dry Riesling, and the Dry Creek Grenache “Les Enfants Terribles”—and as always, I prayed to the winemaking gods to make sure that the wine got into the bottle without any hitches. Two days of nail biting later, my prayers were answered. The wine’s fine.
Nightmare stories abound. I saw one winemaker pop open a cork during bottling only to find a thick, oily sludge floating on the wine (the corker had blown a gasket and was inserting a perfectly measured dollop of oil with each cork). Another year, the same winemaker had a filler malfunction and pressurize bottles instead of pulling a vacuum. Each time you tried to pull a cork out of the bottle, there was a small geyser.
My problems have been much more pedestrian. One year, a labeler bent the corner of each label as it was applied. It drove us crazy—and we had to soak off the errant labels, taking hours and hours off the bottling time. Another time, a corker scored the entire length of the corks, so that they leaked. Again, it took half a day to fix it, and another half day to pull the bad corks.
One of the worst times was when a printer had mislabeled an entire roll of 2000 labels, and we ended up applying Todd Brothers Zinfandel labels to 165 cases of Dry Creek Zinfandel. Didn’t find out until it was all bottled. The printer had to pay for days of soaking off labels, for rescheduling a bottling truck, and for my week’s worth of frustration.
I ward off problems the simplest way possible: I hire Sam. Sam’s the most compulsively clean bottler in the continental US. He takes apart equipment and rebuilds it constantly, to make sure it works right. He paces up and down. He’s constantly making sure there’s no pressure in the bottles. He takes the pulse of his equipment like he was a doctor in an ICU. The one time you want a guy with OCD, it’s on your bottling line.
We’ve been lucky, but you’ve got to be vigilant. We have our big bottling of the season coming up in August, right before harvest. Over 6000 cases to bottle. I’m just saying, I’m getting ready to bug the winemaking gods once more. Wish us luck.