Bottling day is an exciting day, and one we’ve been waiting for since we picked those grapes months and months ago. It can be very rewarding, but it’s also often fraught with angst and stress for whomever is wearing the Winemaker’s Hat. The day of bottling is the easy part; the hard part is making sure the bottling day stays easy. That takes months and months of preparation, organizing, and planning, particularly if you are a small, family-owned boutique winery. But first things first…
How many gallons will I have of finished wine?
Each year in March, we bottle our three lighter wines: rosé, Viognier, and Chardonnay. One of my jobs as a winemaker is to calculate how many gallons of each wine we will eventually bottle. One ton of fruit is supposed to produce between 150-165 gallons of finished wine. Accurate? Nope, but it’s a starting point. Once harvest is over and the new wines are in tanks and barrels, I’ll have a better idea. At that point, I recalculate how many gallons of wine we now have. Accurate this time? Again, nope. Tanks and barrels vary in size and it is simply another calculated guess, but it’s closer to the real number. Then we’ll lose wine during racking, which involves gently moving wine from one container to another, eliminating the sediment left behind, cleaning the vessel, then gently racking the wine back. Finally, a cross-flow filtration truck comes in to fine-tune the wine before bottling, during which, unfortunately, more wine is lost. As a result, it’s impossible to know the exact number of gallons until bottling is completed.
Why are the numbers of gallons important?
I need to accurately estimate how many finished gallons of each wine we will end up with so I can preorder (six months in advance) the glass bottles from our supplier. (The formula for calculating gallons to liters to cases of wine? Gallons multiplied by 3.7854 and divided by 9 = number of cases of bottles.) It’s a tricky proposition as the cases (with 12 bottles to a case) can only be purchased by the pallet (with either 98 cases to a pallet or 105 cases, depending on the glass)—and the supplier will not “split” a pallet. So I have to find a safe, clean spot to store whatever glass I don’t use until the following year’s bottling. To further complicate things, the glass bottle that I use one year may no longer be available the following year. Bottles might look the same, but the dimensions may change. (We are now using our third rosé bottle in three years!) Why is that a problem? The neck size may be slightly different, which means the very expensive foil that we’ve carefully designed, produced, and stocked may no longer fit the new glass bottle!
What about labels?
The bottles for seven of our GlenLyon wines are individually silk-screened, which is very expensive. Once silk-screened, they can only be used for that bottling because there is a different vintage year and percent of alcohol each time. (Why silk screen our bottles, you ask? Because Suzy thinks it looks elegant … “Happy wife, happy life!”) As a result, I must be even more accurate in my gallon count of each wine. If I make a mistake in guesstimating the number of gallons of finished wine and don’t fill all those beautiful, silk-screened glass bottles, I’ve wasted a lot of money getting silk-screened glass that I have to drive to the dump to recycle! So now I re-calculate the gallons once again and notify Bergin Glass Impressions in Napa (I’ve already reserved our silk-screening date a full year in advance) to tell them our exact, final number of bottles to silk-screen. Then I call the trucker to make the delivery from the glass supplier to Bergin. Once Bergin has silk-screened the bottles, I hire another trucking company to pick up the finished glass and deliver it to GlenLyon one full week ahead of our bottling date. Our four paper labels have the same ahead-of-time process, but they are much less expensive if you over-order. And since the glass won’t be silk-screened, the bottle can be used the following year.
What’s left to do?
I have already checked inventory to count how many corks we have in stock and how much of each foil (they’re all different) I have. If I need more logo-embossed corks, that’s a two-month turn-around. Ordering our custom foil takes about a year. During that time, I have scheduled the cross-flow filtration truck and the bottling truck for the day after filtering, and I’ve hired a crew of eight men and women to work the bottling truck. The filtration and bottling trucks use an enormous amount of tricky threephase 240V power, so a portable “tow-behind” generator has to be reserved well ahead of time, picked up, set in place, hooked up, and tested.
What could possibly go wrong?
Early this March, we had our 65th bottling here at GlenLyon — you’d think I’d have it down pat, huh? Nope. This bottling, the huge rented generator simply decided to quit about halfway through, so we had to shut down and scramble to find a replacement (while our crew of eight, plus our own staff, sat on their hands). Fortunately, one generator in all of Sonoma County was available and we raced to Windsor to pick it up. That was a three-hour delay.
What else has gone wrong over the years?
You name it. Don’t tell anybody this, but the very first time we “hand-bottled” wine, circa 1986, I forgot to buy corks. Thus, our 1985 Cabernet (if you ever find a bottle, please do not drink it!) had a Gundlach Bundschu cork, thanks to a late-night, frantic phone call to a winemaker I had just met, Jim Bundschu. We’ve had bottlings where the glass didn’t arrive in time, the foil wouldn’t fit, the generator wouldn’t work, and the 1.5-inch hose blew up, spewing wine hither and yon. We’ve had pouring rain (we bottle outside) and one year the eight-person crew got the date wrong and never showed up. Three
years ago, right across from our winery, the bottling truck got stuck up to the axels in spring mud. On and on. But the most embarrassing bottling? (Don’t tell anybody this one either!) In 1988, we had a great, small bottling day with friends. The last step was to carefully put our paper labels onto the bottles. The labels were wet from the water, so we put a fan on the bottles to dry the labels out. Later on, during dinner, I discovered that the labels had not been pre-glued and they all blew off the bottles.
Needless to say, there are a lot of moving parts and a myriad of things that can go wrong before, during, and after bottling. My job, wearing my Winemaker’s Hat, is to make sure that every possible thing that I can control is under control. I have to assume that something will go wrong — and it always seems to.
As soon as our spring bottling was finished, and the pretty new silk-screened bottles of 2020 rosé, Viognier, and Chardonnay were safely stored in our cave, I started the whole process all over again in preparation for our August red wine bottling. This time … four different wines!
I just re-read this column and I’m exhausted — time for a glass of fine Sonoma Valley wine.
“Just Drink It!”
It takes a long time to grow an old friend.