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December 2008 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Going Mobile

Wineries outsource bottling to save space, time and capital

 
by Kate Lavin
 
 
Mobile Bottling
 
Wine bottles are filled inside one of five mobile trailer units owned by Halsey Bottling, which has equipment that can output up to 3,500 cases per day.
 
    HIGHLIGHTS
     

     
  • Mobile bottling lines provide flexibility for wineries of all sizes.
     
  • Fixed, on-site bottling lines can take up valuable winery real estate that could otherwise be used year-round.
     
  • When choosing a mobile bottler, ask for and check references from wineries with similarly sized bottling runs.
     
Just as grapes don't stop ripening during a credit crunch, wine needs to be bottled regardless of whether a premium bottling line is in a winemaker's budget. For winery owners wary of investing their hard-earned capital in machinery that may be used only a few months out of the year, mobile bottling services offer a tech-savvy alternative to hand-bottling, as well as expertise in the process.

"I believe a good line is a line that is used often and frequently," said Scott McLeod, the winemaker at Rubicon Estate Winery in Rutherford, Calif., which employs both in-house and mobile bottling lines. "Maintenance is key on a bottling line."

Dan Halsey Jr. of Halsey Bottling in Napa Valley regularly bottles for Rubicon Estate, and he said that most of his winery clients release 30,000 to 50,000 cases per year, the bottling for which takes about 15 days. To spend hundreds of thousands of dollars building an in-house bottling line, only to run it a few weeks out of the year, just doesn't make financial sense for a lot of wineries, Halsey said.

Bringing in experience

Those sentiments were mirrored by wineries we contacted all over North America, where the mobile bottling industry is booming. According to Tom Nulman of San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based Bottle Meister Inc., California only had four or five mobile bottling services until a few years ago. Based on Wines & Vines' latest count, there are now 17 mobile bottling companies in the state.

Since winery-owned bottling lines often sit idle for much of the year, finding personnel to operate them can present a problem. Winemakers looking to bottle in-house have to find someone on their staff that they can spare for 20 days out of the year while he or she runs the bottling line.

"When you're only using a complicated piece of machinery for a few weeks out of the year, you don't get very proficient at it," said Norm Cole of Artus Bottling in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia.

The latest bottling technology can be too expensive to purchase outright, especially for small wineries. The price for a no-frills bottling line starts at about $30,000, said Jenny Hofherr of J & J Micro Bottling Co. in Calistoga, Calif., and top-of-the-line winery models can cost $500,000 or more.

"They're able to use state-of-the-art equipment that the larger wineries enjoy--such as the sparging of the bottle to greatly reduce oxygen pickup," Cole said of small wineries that opt to use mobile bottling services. "It makes it affordable and easily within reach for the smaller wineries."

According to Randy Ramos of Top It Off Bottling in Sonoma, Calif., a winery's output would have to be between 200,000 and 250,000 cases per year to recoup the cost of housing, staffing and maintaining an in-house bottling line.

But small-yield wineries aren't the only ones using mobile bottling services. The difference is which lots the wineries bottle themselves, and which are handled by a mobile bottling team.

"Some clients have their own in-house lines for doing smaller lots, but for the longer runs they'll bring us in because things get done quicker and the labor cost is right," said Steve Rasmussen of Santa Maria, Calif.-based SLO Bottling.

Conversely, hundreds of wineries opt to bottle their larger runs using on-site bottling lines, bringing in mobile bottlers to push through the small lots. Glenn Hunt of Ontario-based Hunter Bottling said often it isn't cost-effective to stop the high-speed bottling line to do a smaller run.

Mobile Bottling
 
Freshly bottled Riesling is labeled by Hunter Bottling, an Ontario-based mobile bottler serving the Niagara winegrowing region.
 
Another common time for wineries to bring in a mobile bottling team occurs when the marketing department has brainstormed a packaging idea that the in-house bottling line can't pull off. "A lot of it could be something as simplistic as Stelvin screwcaps," Hunt said. "They might want to do a trial run--doing a vintage with Stelvin caps and see what the consumer response is to it. They don't want to invest the money on equipment if their customers won't like it."

At Rubicon Estate, McLeod brought in a mobile bottling company to help when a new glass bottle didn't fit on its regular bottling line. Most bottling companies have the equipment to accommodate such requests, McLeod said, because they must be ready to adapt to the varied packaging demands wineries.

Making space

Using a mobile bottling service means that the winemaker doesn't have to set aside valuable winery floor space or storage to house an on-site bottling line--the trailers pull up to the delivery and reception area and plug in there. Wineries supply the wine, packaging materials and a power source, and most mobile bottlers take care of the rest.

"Start looking at the real estate you have to give up in your small winery, where you could be stacking barrels six high and use it all year long," said Niels Udsen of Castoro Bottling, San Miguel, Calif. "It really becomes hard to justify what you are giving up. It's not just the expense, it's the other things you could be using that space for."

Of course one disadvantage to using a mobile bottling service is that winemakers need to be willing to compromise on a timeline, and bottling at non-peak times won't necessarily save money. During peak bottling months like June, July and August, some bottling crews already are working double shifts so that wineries can clear their warehouses in time for crush. A second busy season in mobile bottling--this one for white wines--happens in early spring.

"We're starting to schedule next year right now," Halsey said in October about his summer 2009 schedule. "As soon as people bring in what they harvested--and that's right now--they already know what the gallonage is."

The need for speed

Paul Gardner of Pentage Winery in British Columbia said that his wine is bottled about 60% faster now that he's using a mobile bottling service. He cited speed, efficiency and the ability to change closure formats as major reasons why outsourcing the process for his 1,500 case per year operation appealed to him.

Artus Bottling, which provides the service for Pentage, has the ability to bottle between 1,200 cases and 1,800 cases per day, depending on which trailer it's using for a particular job. Some companies contacted by Wines & Vines said they bottle around 60 bottles per minute, while others regularly run their lines at 105 bottles per minute, if not faster.

Some boutique winery owners, however, believe the number of cases they bottle in a year doesn't justify calling in a bottling service--if, that is, one will come.

"For a small winery like ours, you couldn't get a mobile bottler to come up and do it," said Mike Barrett of Cloverdale, Calif.-based KC Vintners, which produced 250 cases last year. "They like to come in and do thousands of cases so that it's cost effective for the winery and the mobile bottler."

Barrett said he's been making wine for 25 years--and making it professionally since 2000. When it comes time to bottle his wine, he invites over a few friends, orders pizza and gets to work. Last year the crew started bottling about 10 a.m. and finished around 6 p.m. "We're careful--we do a pretty good job. We invite a lot of outside people and friends who want to come up and get the winery experience," Barrett said.

Choosing a mobile bottler

Like many mobile bottlers we talked to, Steve Rasmussen of SLO Bottling got into the business after spending years making wine professionally. He served as winemaker at Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, a position from which he said he contracted with five mobile bottling services before founding SLO Bottling with former Talley Vineyards cellar master, Jose Cuevas.

So, what is the most important thing you should ask a mobile bottler before agreeing to contract with him or her? Rasmussen--and every other mobile bottler contacted for this article--said the same thing: Client references.

McCleod, the Napa winemaker, took it a step further. "I always ask, 'Who are your clients?' and after they give you their clients ask them if there are any clients they've had a problem with, and ask if it's OK if I talk to them as well. The good bottlers will provide you with their successes and those that proved to be a challenge."

Rasmussen strongly recommended that winemakers pay a site visit to watch a mobile bottling line at work. "You have to go see them in action. You can't base your decision by what somebody says over the phone," Rasmussen said.

Next, he said, it's key to get an understanding of the sanitation practices adhered to on the line. "If you don't have a clean machine, the winemaker has every reason to worry," Rasmussen said. "If I've spent all this time and money on a high-quality wine, I don't want to see it get oxidized and beat up."

Thirdly, Norman Cole said, find out what type of bottling checks a mobile bottler does on the line to make sure the job is being done right. For example, what are the average oxygen levels and how often are they checked?

After all, Halsey said, "The winemaker is crafting his baby. This is his artistic view on wine." When it comes time to package that wine for its eventual trip to the customer, the winemaker should feel as comfortable as possible that the creation is in the best hands possible.

10.3 million cases at $2.26 per case
 

 
Alternative text
 
PHOTO: Halsey Bottling
Based on Wines & Vines' database of industry suppliers, 20 companies provide mobile bottling services in North America. Of the 16 mobile bottlers who responded to our request for an interview, 14 agreed to share their total production figures. The highest number of cases per year reported was 1.5 million, and the lowest was 150,000, and the average output was 512,500 cases per year. Based on the data we obtained, the mobile bottling industry is responsible for the bottling of 10.3 million cases of wine per year, or almost 3% of the total number of cases produced each year.

We found little variation in the companies' prices per case; the average worked out to be $2.26. The least expensive mobile bottling service quote was $1.50 per case, and the most expensive was $3.50 per case.

Several mobile bottlers say the price per case has changed very little in the last 10 years, as the number of mobile bottlers has grown, and competition has kept prices down. "In the last three years, the number of mobile bottling lines out there has probably doubled," said Tom Nulman of San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based Bottle Meister Inc.

Recent innovations in mobile bottling include O2 sensing technology, bottle rinsing, optically spotting labels, liquid nitrogen drips to create a vacuum seal for screwcap closures, laser etching of the date and time of bottling, HEPA filtration in bottling trailers and Velcorin dosing services.

Once the mobile bottling service shows up, the meter starts ticking, and a foul-up on the winery's end can end up costing several hundred dollars in idle fees, which typically are charged by the hour. Most mobile bottlers also charge a set-up fee of about $300, as well as a changeover fee (also about $300) for each time the line is reworked to accommodate a new style of bottle.

K.L.
 
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