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Vol. 11 No.3 - July '03

Adventures in Bottling

Saturday, July 26, 2003

The announcement seemed intriguing - help some of my favorite folks (Garretson, Saxum, Villa Creek) with their scheduled wine bottlings, and get paid in wine. The offer seemed irresistible. Between you and me, I'd have probably done it for free, but who's going to look a gift horse in the mouth?

The event was scheduled for a two-day run - Garretson on Saturday; Saxum and Villa Creek on Sunday. I decided to leave early Saturday morning for the 8:30 start time, and stay over both Saturday and Sunday nights. A small problem complicating the overnight arrangements was that the Mid-State Fair was in full swing, making rooms pricier and less available. Luckily, I got something in town for a reasonable price - one of the other members of the bottling crew was quoted $125/night to stay at the Super 8 about ten miles away in Atascadero. They apparently demanded $158 on his arrival.

I left Orange County early in the morning and arrived at precisely 8:30am, congratulating myself on timing the trip so well. Unfortunately, there was some disappointing news - the bottling truck was being repaired and wasn't due at Garretson's until somewhere between 11:00 and Noon. I met up with Dave Chan and had a little [more] breakfast, then we headed back to the winery. By about 10:00 or so, eight volunteers had arrived to help with the bottling, and were all just cooling our heels waiting for the the bottling rig to arrive. Meanwhile, Mat Garretson sensed that idle hands were a misuse of the volunteer labor pool, and since there were always things to do around a winery, found a project or two to keep us busy.

Mat had two bottlings of his new Reliquary, a red blend and a white blend, that still needed to have wax capsules and labels applied to the bottles. Tasting room manager Jamie had earlier gone out looking for a crock pot to melt the "wax" (actually an easy-to-cut polymer rather than some rock-hard wax), but it turned out that a hot plate and an aluminum pot melted the wax much better.

A few of us took up positions, variously transporting bottles from either a big palate or a bin over to the workstation where others were applying labels and capsules. Gianni gave the wax dipping a try, and it seemed to be going well; the label application was a little more difficult. Mike P. noticed that getting the self-adhesive labels on at just the right location proved challenging. (Actually, this was kind of satisfying to me. Since I'd spent innumerable hours trying get the bloody things off, I was secretly pleased to see that they're nearly as hard to put on accurately.)

About 11:30, Mat spoke with the bottler again. They weren't going to be able to get there until later this afternoon. Mat decided to scuttle the day's run, and spend the afternoon getting the bottling line set up for an early run the next day. This occasion prompted Mat to utter his famous words about this particular process: "Bottling sucks." Suddenly released from our chores for the day, we had to decide what to do with ourselves. Let's see, we're in Paso Robles with a free afternoon. We could either go to the Mid-State Fair, or go wine tasting. No-brainer!

Dinner at Alloro was arranged, and ten of us had a great time - along with some great wines. Tomorrow's another day.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Arrived at 8:00 at Garretson. So this is a bottling line! I'd seen some small lines before, but this was fascinating. From the outside, the rig looked something like a county fair concession stand. Lots of door or window openings on each side, with several stainless steel machines located behind double Lexan doors. The instrument panels were similar to some CCD machining lathes I've seen. Stainless steel was the order of the day here, with everything either clad or solid SS. Just beautiful! Obviously, this was something that was made to be hosed down and cleaned up relatively easily.

...I push the first valve down
The bottle goes 'round and around
And it comes out here....

The concept of a bottling line is pretty straight forward. Empty bottles start at one end, and come out as filled and labeled bottles of wine at the other end. In between, about $225,000 worth of automated hydraulic machinery makes it happen. One circular machine with 12 "pedestals" handles the filling and corking operation; another snugs down the foils; and a third affixes the labels. On this particular line, all of the bottling, corking, foiling, and labeling machinery is enclosed within a medium length trailer. The empty bottles get fed into a side door at one end, and rollers extending out from the back end deliver the finished product to be packed back into the same cases that previously held the empties. But it's not completely automated; people have various tasks to perform in the process, but in the final analysis, we're merely feeding the machine - something not lost on us, as we took to calling it, ...the Bottlenator!

I stood around for a moment looking for an assignment. Mike R., obviously experienced at such matters was already in position inside the trailer at the "loading" or front end of the line. He must know something, I figured. So, when one of the setup crew asked for another person up front, I climbed into the trailer. Mike's wise. We're in the shade, he pointed out. Yeah, this is definitely the place to be, I thought.

A Fistful of Bottles

We were going to be responsible for sparging and loading the bottles onto the line. Sparging involves sliding the bottles over two slightly inverted hollow rods and giving a light push to inject compressed air into the bottles to dislodge dust and cardboard debris caused by the boxes. Simple enough - except this is an exercise in both hand-eye coordination and speed, because the line was moving at 30-bottles/minute. Pretty soon you figure out that holding the bottle higher on the shoulder toward the neck is best for guiding the bottle over the rods. After 10-15 minutes, you get into kind of a rhythm and start to keep pace with the speed of the line. Then after 15-20 minutes it seems effortless, and you start to get a little cocky. Hey, whatsa matter machine, can't you keep up? Hey, how fast does this thing go? ...what, 50 bottles per minute! Oh...uh, nice machine, nice machine - I was only kiddin' witcha.

After about 30 minutes, the four of us at the front-end were starting to have a little fun with it all - sort of like mile two of a forty mile hike. We were joking around - this was fun. Ramm-ing speed, Mike would declare, as we started to gain on the machine. But, it was just an illusion - one sneeze, one missed injector or one pause for a drink of water, and you're falling behind. Pretty soon, we reverted to singing work songs - right out of 'Cool Hand Luke'. Then finally, after about 120 bottles (just 10 cases mind you), your brain just drops into a dull buzzzzz, and you become merely part of the machine. Thoughts of getting closer the end of the run start to creep into your head. The reality of the situation got clarified as Mat would bring over yet another pallet of glass. No-body knows the trouble I seen....

There were four of us feeding the machine - two guys working the glass on the pallets, one doing the sparging and one feeding the bottling line. Arguably the toughest job was loading the empties onto a table at the start of the line. Dave Chan did yeoman work for most of the day here, relieved by Mike R. in the early afternoon as the temperature continued to rise. On down the line, there were Ed and Denise putting on foils, Mike P. guiding labels, and several others like Jason Davis loading wine into boxes and stacking them back onto a pallet. All the while, the two fellows that brought the rig here would variously monitor each of the machine stations, as well as keep the juice flowing and the cork hopper filled with closures. Then, when each run was finished, they would empty the hose, fill some remaining bottles with the juice, and get ready to run again.

For a Few Bottles More

We continued at this pace for about 1-1/2 hours or so until the 256 cases of Roussanne were done. Then, after a quick change of hoses at the tank source, were were back up and running with 160 cases of Viognier. Mike switched out with another volunteer, Cameron, who took over with the sparging, while I fed the line. Part way through the Viognier, the dark glass ran out and we started to use clear glass. Now we had a much better view of the filling process, as the lemon-colored liquid cascaded down into each bottle. Looked like Mat's Hard Lemonade, Cameron remarked. This took us up to lunch time, and Mat provided us with pizza and beer as a refresher. Stepping out of the trailer, I stumbled into the winery. Much as I wanted a beer, I thought that would probably do me in for the rest of the day. Grabbing a couple of slices of pizza, I looked in awe at the stacks of cases (3 pallets high) that we'd already completed. Wow, I thought, we did all that! It's funny, with all the glass coming and going I'd never really given any thought what was happening on the other end of the line. So, what's a rig like this cost to rent - is it by the hour, I asked Mat. Oh, gosh no - we wouldn't be stopping now if it was by the hour. Duh, I thought to myself. Mat continued, ...most bottling lines usually charge anywhere from $2.50 to $3.75 per case - this one is more on the high end, because their methods are less invasive and easier on the wines.

After lunch, we headed into red wine territory. Mat had a couple of short runs: 25 cases of '01 Lucky at Cards, a killer GSM made by Mat, Justin, and Cris Cherry of Villa Creek for the HdR 2002 auction; and a 25 case Pinot lot made for Hastings (formerly Halter Vnyd). Twenty-five cases seemed like a piece of cake. Turns out it was far easier to make a few shorter runs, than one long run. At least you could stop for a minute to swig down some water or swat away a pesky fly without falling behind at feeding the Bottlenator. Yet, next in line was the '01 Saxum Bone Rock - all 300 cases of it. Let's see - 300 cases, 3600 bottles, 2 hours non-stop... Dang! This is work. What did I get myself into here?

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Get those plastic things out of here, Justin Smith called out, clearly taunting Mat by calling for real corks rather than the synthetic closures Garretson was using. I had noticed the scent of white wine earlier in the morning. Although each bottle creates a seal at the filling station, some of that glorious aroma still seemed to fill the air. As the beautiful raised-logo HdR bottles were getting filled with Lucky at Cards, the scent was nearly intoxicating. After the 300 case run of Bone Rock, we got 15 minutes off for good behavior, while Jose and his partner re-configured the rig for a run of Bone Rock in magnums.

Although the Saxum run used similar glass, the final packing was completely different. Justin had elected to use recycled packing material for his six-packs. Since the egg carton-like material was rough, he wanted each bottle wrapped with tissue to protect the label. Luckily, he had arranged for a cadre of friends and family to help out with this immense project - something that obviously would take more than just one afternoon. Funny thing though, some of these folks seemed to be in a world of their own. Working inside the winery, they were cool and comfy, and - I couldn't believe it - sipping Syrah! I discovered this during one of the breaks to change bottle sizes. I wandered in, looking for relief from the heat and an opportunity to rest my aching back, and here were people acting as though they were at a backyard social. Okay, no problem, I was the one who wanted to work the bottling line. Hey, how about giving us a hand here and open this up, one of the guys called to me as he set down a big box of wrapping tissue. I guess I must've looked like I needed something to do - that is, since I didn't have a glass in my hand!

Magnum Force

Okay, ready to go, came the call from outside. Time to do magnums. A mere 10 cases of Bone Rock mags - 60 bottles - were being produced, and we were each to get one as payment for services rendered. All of sudden it occurred to me. By the time this is over, I will have touched each and every bottle of 2001 Saxum Bone Rock Syrah - both the 750's and the magnums. My grandchildren will be proud. Holding one of those magnums is a thrill - there is just something special about a big bottle. Give them two bursts on the sparger, we were told. Well, that was going to slow us down. But then I figured the line speed would probably have to be turned down, since each bottle would contain twice the wine as a 750ml. Yet, it sure didn't seem like it was that much slower. Sixty bottles went pretty fast, and with the short 1.5L run over, we got another 15 minute break before Cris Cherry's run of 44 cases of Avenger. Hey, didn't you already release the Avenger, I asked. Yes, but he'd found another two barrels of it tucked away in the back of the winery - something he'd forgotten about. This led Mat to suggest that Cris name it the Lost Avenger. Hey Cris, how about you coming up here and sparge. Then you can truly say that this was produced and bottled by Villa Creek. Cris wasn't buying any today.

We finally finished up about 5:00pm. Statistics for the day: 820 cases - or, to put that in proper perspective 9,720-750ml bottles and 60-1.5L bottles. Phew! Mat suggested dinner over at Villa Creek, and many of us agreed to meet at 6:30. With that, the July '03 bottling crew congratulated each other for a job well done (no breakage), grabbed our loot, and headed back home or to our respective motels to get ready for dinner. I had a blast, and would do it again in a heartbeat. The payoff in wine was just frosting on the cake.

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