Growing & Winemaking


Packaging Planning Is Critical for Bottling Day

April 2016
by Andy starr
Start planning for bottling day six months in advance if you have used your suppliers before and 12 months ahead for new products or items that are going to require design work.

Here’s an example of two ways to solve the same problem.

1. You need open heart surgery. You have a surgeon (probably a highly recommended referral from your primary care doctor). He or she works with a hospital to book a time and date; all the doctors, nurses, tools, supplies and equipment are in place on the day of your surgery. You defer to their planning and expertise. You eat nothing the night before. The system works. You live a long time and get to meet your grandchildren.

2. You need open heart surgery. You call a few hospitals to see who has open surgery rooms. Your No. 1 priority is to get a good price, because, “Hospitals are a commodity, and it’s my money!” Then you hire a doctor, bring in some nurses from a temp agency who also gave you a heckuva deal, buy scalpels, bandages and oxygen tanks from a range of vendors (you get to go on one vendor’s annual fishing trip if you buy from them), and tell them all to ship to the hospital the day before your surgery date. You don’t ask the hospital which surgery supplies they recommend. A scalpel is a scalpel. Also, you hate the idea of surgery almost as much as you hate bottling wine, so you don’t waste time keeping tabs on your suppliers to see if they will make their delivery dates. Surgery day arrives and…

Wine quality matters. You must have an executed package that’s worthy of that wine and its price, but that can’t happen until it is safely bottled with a closure, capsule, TTB-approved label and shipping case. And that’s the bare minimum. Do you remember the scene from the film “Office Space” when the manager of Chotchkie’s restaurant scolded Jennifer Aniston for wearing only 15 pieces of flair? “What does that say about you, just doing the minimum?”

My premise is that designers, materials vendors and bottling services vendors must collaborate on behalf of winery and brand owners. When that doesn’t happen, it’s usually not because they don’t want to do it, but because the winery doesn’t see planning as a critical and collaborative process with potentially divergent criteria for each vendor (e.g., cost, quality, speed).

Winery owners should note that when bottling day problems arise, winemakers will likely blame vendors for their “crap (insert packaging supply here)”, yet a more objective assessment might be that the winemaker planned poorly.

Learning from wineries
Shelly Rafanelli-Fehlman is the winemaker at A. Rafanelli Winery, a 10,000-case facility in Healdsburg, Calif. A fourth-generation family member in the wine business, Rafanelli-Fehlman grew up in the winery and remembers listening to her Sony Walkman during bottling.

She compares bottling to “planning a wedding”—an excellent analogy, as the wedding date/mobile bottler date is inching closer whether the flowers were ordered or not. Most of Rafanelli-Fehlman’s wines are bottled in March, and planning begins once all the grapes are in tank, around Nov. 1. Rafanelli-Fehlman emphasized the importance of planning to a delivery date, rather than a bottling date. Wherever possible, you want supplies to arrive with enough time so that if there is a problem, there is time to correct it.

Her advice to small wineries is: “Start early. Know what you want to bottle, how you want the package to look. Establish a strong relationship with your mobile bottler. A good relationship and tight communication are extremely important. It just runs so much smoother.” Rafanelli-Fehlman has worked with the same bottler, Ryan Mobile Bottling of Napa, Calif., for 15 years, and she sees the company as a partner who knows her facility and people. If she plans to use a new bottle shape or vendor, Rafanelli-Fehlman will hand-deliver samples to the mobile bottler months in advance to test capsule, label and cork compatibility. She notes, “A bottle issue can create a label or capsule wrinkle, and at $40 to $100 per bottle, you really need it to be right.”

Rafanelli-Fehlman uses a big desk calendar to plan bottling and proactively sends reminders and adjustments to vendors as the delivery date nears. She saves a lot of money by having labels printed once per year, which requires committing to case volumes and getting COLAs approved early. She also recommends comparing paper and ink colors year-to-year, as there can be variations (e.g., the many shades of “off-white”).

She says her suppliers frequently compliment her organization and planning. Do yours?

Jim Close has been the winemaker at Gamble Family Vineyards in Oakville, Calif., since 2004. The winery produces 8,000 cases.

Close has been using Top Shelf of Napa, Calif., for bottling for eight years, “The bottling line truck is not a commodity; they are not all the same,” he says. I will put a little extra money into that.” He finds the owner/operators at Top Shelf caring and knowledgeable. Close has this advice for those who may undervalue bottling planning: “The worst case is you don’t have the packaging needed on the bottling date. If it’s a July date, you don’t get a second chance. The bottlers are booked until well into harvest.” Now you have wine taking up your tanks, a sudden need for off-site storage, quality-degradation issues due to shipping and extended storage. That will be an expensive, unbudgeted item. If you bottle shiners, they may have to stay in your facility, as they can’t be moved without a valid label approval. Next worst case, capsule/bottle incompatibility: “A reputable mobile bottler will do the best they can with an incorrect foil, but your $80 bottle of wine can look like crap. That’s not the brand image you want.” Finally, he suggests wineries avoid choosing “rock-bottom pricing” among vendors, as they provide far less support when problems arise.

For small wineries, Close advises: “Whatever lead time you think you need, double it. Take nothing for granted. Just because a vendor says it will fit doesn’t mean it will. Check it yourself.” He recommends al lowing 12 months lead-time if design is required and six months if it is not.

Tom Rochioli is the winemaker and co-owner of Rochioli Vineyard & Winery, a 12,000-case operation in Healdsburg, Calif. He has been part of the winery since its first vintage in 1985. Rochioli takes bottling planning very seriously, as “bottling is the one thing that can be worse than rain during harvest.” Like Rafanelli-Fehlman and Close, Rochioli says it’s “better starting early than late,” especially with a new package.

In a small winery, Rochioli believes it should be the winemaker who coordinates everything. To keep on top of things, he uses spreadsheets and color-coded clipboards for each wine (green for Sauvignon Blanc, yellow for Chardonnay and red for Pinot Noir).

Rochioli places high value on vendors who genuinely care, the kind who “stop in on bottling day to see how it’s going.” His advice is, “Don’t play with price. You get what you pay for.” Rochioli’s vendors are part of his team. Along with using Ryan Mobile Bottling, he gets corks from M.A. Silva, capsules from Ramondin, glass from TricorBraun and labels from Herdell Printing. Because of his long relationship with Herdell, the label vendor once “stayed up all night” printing for him. He consults with the bottler about all potential package changes, because they bottle every day and see every kind of packaging permutation. Lastly, Rochioli reminds us that even with great planning, it’s wise to “assume that something is going to go wrong on bottling day.” With strong vendor relationships, however, it’s more likely that “something” will be minor and easily remedied.

A common thread with all three winemakers is that they value planning. Doing it well is critical to their product quality and brand image, plus it avoids problems and saves money.

A designer’s perspective
Cynthia Sterling is a principal and creative director of Sterling Creativeworks in Napa, Calif. For more than 25 years she has been designing for the wine industry, including brand strategy and story development, naming, complete package design (shipper, capsule, glass, label), as well as websites and sales collateral, working with small boutiques and multi-national corporations.

Sterling points out that with so many things to know, the winery point person doesn’t need to be the expert. He or she does need to ensure the experts are communicating with each other, however. For example, the designer needs a bottle drawing that provides label panel dimensions as well as the bottling line company’s tolerances as to labeling, so that the label will work with the bottle and the bottling line. If all of these experts are part of a project team that starts early and communicates with each other, the job will get done right. If the winery keeps the vendors apart, the odds of a bottling-day disaster skyrocket.

Poor time management can also lead to design compromises. Sterling notes, “When you are out of time you may end up with a stock capsule instead of a custom-printed one. Will it still convey quality and justify price?”

A vendor’s view
Rich Du Bois is a product manager for M.A. Silva, a leading supplier of corks and bottles. He also is an industry veteran, having held senior packaging procurement roles for Allied Domecq and Constellation Brands. He points out that bottling isn’t taught by the various winemaking schools, where the focus is on vineyards and winemaking, stopping just before the filler. Du Bois also is a proponent of bringing vendors into the process early on. He wants wineries to test his materials for compatibility, knowing that time spent in advance will avoid most problems on bottling day. He suggests the winery contact person ask bottlers open-ended questions like, “How can I make my run with you go well?” Good packaging vendors and bottlers know each other well, so wineries should ask for referrals.

Let a pro plan it for you
In the August 2015 issue of Wines & Vines, I wrote a story about core competencies. The premise was that you should do what you do well and let others take care of everything else. It makes more sense to buy Apple’s iPhone than trying to build one yourself. David Reed is president of FreeRun Winery Services in Healdsburg, Calif., which is a “bolt-on planning, purchasing and packaging arm for wineries.” FreeRun provides sophisticated procurement and packaging expertise that small wineries typically do not have, leveling the playing field between small producers and large wineries with better resources. Bringing in such outside services frees up time for winemakers to focus on wine quality, and for winery owners to spend more time selling, etc.

FreeRun does all the planning and supplier follow-up to keep projects on budget and on schedule. In addition, the company negotiates volume discounts on behalf of many winery clients. Finally, FreeRun provides a detailed cost accounting of every step, which is often an eye-opener for winery owners.

He observes many of the same mistakes mentioned by others in this story, adding that blending too late in the process often leads to wines that no longer meet appellation, alcohol or other label compliance requirements. “Now you are bottling shiners,” he says.

Reed offers this advice: “One of the absolute keys is a buttoned-up plan and schedule, starting with expected finished gallons. Then create a materials plan with realistic yield and waste factor for materials. If at all possible, defer final glass-delivery numbers until you have your wine in the bottling tank.” He encourages winery owners to listen to supplier suggestions. A label printer might suggest a slight change in dimension or materials that would save you 20%.”

Cynthia Sterling sums up the packaging process best: “Winemakers must appreciate the great complexity of bottling. You are ordering a half-dozen components made in different parts of the world by completely different vendors, expecting all parts to fit together perfectly (both from a functional and design perspective) on the bottling day and convey your brand image and wine quality. That’s a lot of different, precise components and tolerances that all have to come together. We’d better get these people talking to each other.”

Andy Starr, founder of StarrGreen (, is an entrepreneur, marketing manager and winemaker who provi des strategy, management and business development consulting services. A resident of Napa Valley, Calif., he holds a bachelor’s degree in fermentation science from the University of California, Davis, and an MBA from UCLA. He lectures about the importance of business plans at Napa Valley College.

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