May 2013 Issue of Wines & Vines

Label Printers for Short Runs

Stay flexible with compact, easy-to-use equipment

by Jane Firstenfeld
Rudy Jungwirth, owner and winemaker of Valley Vineyard in Prescott, Wis., discusses using a short-run printer to make labels for his small winery.
    Just add black

    They print only in black, and only on non-textured stock, but the Toshiba thermal transfer printers sold by MacDay Label Systems Ltd. provide a simple, quick and economical solution to label customization for some 400 North American wineries.

    MacDay president Kim MacGowan, who helped adapt the equipment specifically to target the wine industry, explained how the process works. A winery may have one or more basic labels that can be customized for private clients, special events or to accommodate changes in production. (Start-ups or home winemakers can access a library of stock labels or clip art to design their own.)

    These background labels are printed in full color at MacDay and arrive at the winery within three weeks, ready to use in the thermal printer. With an attached PC (Mac operating systems don’t have supportive printer drivers), an operator at the winery can plug in variable copy using the fonts/sizes from the computer. For instance, “Merlot” can be rechristened “Merry Christmas Merlot,” or “The Miller Family’s Merlot” at speeds up to one label per second.

    The pressure-sensitive, peel-and-stick labels can be paired on the roll with back labels (and/or additional mandatory government health warning labels). They can be manually applied or run onto another roll for mechanical application. This flexibility allows the system to grow with the winery, MacGowan said.

    Drawing from a long career in the printing industry, MacGowan was candid about this system’s limitations. Although the black printing is high quality (300 dpi), she said, “It cannot do photographs and doesn’t do grayscale well.” She developed MacDay’s proprietary, icon-driven software to improve print quality. Thermal printing requires a smooth surface, but background art can provide an appealing textured appearance, she said.

    MacGowan works with clients to optimize their use of the printers. The current model lists for $895. “My U.S. customers for commercial wineries tend to order about 20,000 to 30,000 labels per year. For custom labels at that quantity, the label cost is between 10 and 15 cents,” she said.

Label printing continues to make great strides in efficient technology, and most wineries continue to utilize the expert services of established commercial printers for most of their lab­eling requirements. But just as office desktop printers have become smaller, faster, cheaper and more reliable in recent decades, so have label printers manufactured specifically for wineries of any size to use in-house, producing professional-quality labels in short runs at a reasonable cost.

Of the roughly 8,000 wineries in North America, more than 6,000 produce fewer than 5,000 cases annually (and 1,000 make less than 1,000 cases), per WinesVinesDATA. Virtually all of these small wineries produce more than one varietal or brand every year, and even brands with just a few cases per year may carry distinctive labels of their own.

Designing these, from wording to art to label stock and shape, can be daunting, especially when bottling dates may vary depending on the type and varietal of
wine and available equipment. TTB Certificates of Label Approval (COLAs) must be in hand, along with bottles that work with the desired labels, plus closures and capsules, and workers who can use all the equipment.

With sufficient planning, many small wineries (or wineries with short-run labeling needs) effectively work with dozens of North American commercial printers that specialize in wine labels. These pros have the resources and experience to help with COLA requirements, and they can provide the most advanced materials and design options, including foil stamping and embossing.

Automated bottling lines are expensive and space consuming, and they may not be used more than a few days in a given year. Tiny wineries often lack the capital and floor space to invest—these can use mobile bottling or avail themselves of nearby bottling services.

Still, the labels must come from somewhere. Standard office computer printers are quite primitive for the job, but a few U.S. manufacturers make high-quality printers that are almost as compact and simple to use.

Primera and QuickLabel gave demonstrations in their Unified Wine & Grape Symposium booths in January. These two printers are the major players in this field, according to spokespeople for both companies and winery owners who have shopped around and purchased one or more of the printers.

For wineries considering a move to in-house labels for all or part of their bottling needs, we asked the manufacturers and end-users to compare and contrast.

Options from QuickLabel
The diminutive Zeo!, a magenta-hued gem about the dimensions of an HP desktop printer/scanner is the most eye-catching printer. It’s suitable for the smallest wineries, running 100-200 labels per day (depending on complexity), according to April Ondis, marketing director for QuickLabel Systems of Warwick, R.I.

“It’s slow but ideal for tasting rooms, especially for personalized labels,” Ondis said. “Approval by TTB is the biggest obstacle to taking advantage of this flexibility. For small wineries that have a hard time getting started, we have some advice.” Zeo! Retails for about $1,995.

Ondis quoted printing costs of about 2.5-3 cents per label for a typical 3x4-inch label; costs can go up to 5 cents per label for “color-intensive” labels, she said. QuickLabel can provide stock or customized die-cut-to-size rolls of unprinted labels, with hundreds to choose from.

Quick­Label’s staff of designers can prepare the specs and software in about a week, Ondis said. “All the time is on the designer’s end. Users just press print and play.”

Choices of label stock are virtually limitless. “There’s no special kind you can’t use,” she said. “Polypropylene, polyester—we just have to test in our media test lab to match and make it compatible with the design.” Waterproof ink and scuff-resistant coatings can be matched with label materials, and refrigerator-safe adhesives are available.

The Zeo! and other QuickLabel models are now in use at hundreds of wineries, Ondis said. The new, top-of-the-line
Kiaro! is somewhat larger and much faster, printing up to 40 feet per minute. Recommended for “wineries of every size,” it is highly flexible, providing digitally printed ink jet colors.

“It seems to work like a desktop printer,” Ondis said, but “inside, it’s dedicated to multi-color label printing, with separate wells for cyan, magenta, yellow and black in 140ml large-capacity cartridges that require fewer ink changes and have a large roll capacity. In use already at about 50 wineries, Kiaro! retails for about $10,000.

“Speed and quality upticks” have driven these printers’ evolution in recent years, Ondis said. “Once upon a time, we were stuck at 300 dpi (dots per inch) resolution; now it’s 1,200 dpi. The intricate art with scenery and architecture that many wineries prefer can now be printed in-house, without any visible dots.”

Primera printers
Wine label printers are the major market for Primera Technology Inc. of Plymouth, Minn., according to product manager Peter Chalmers. “Close to half are running in-house printing. The biggest thing that’s changed are machines with more features, for larger volumes. They allow a lot of customers to open all sorts of volumes: seasonal or private labels, or just doing more in-house.”

Chalmers said recent improvements in the field include a wider variety of label substrates, diversity and speed. Primera’s newest and most popular model, the LX 900, retails for $2,995. At up to 2 inches per second, it prints eight times faster than its discontinued predecessor.

Chalmers touted simple operation: “It’s like running any desktop printer. We provide easy-to-use label layout software with the printer. It can print directly from Adobe and Photoshop.” A thousand 3-inch x 4-inch labels, he said, can cost between 7 and 20 cents to produce.

“We’ve targeted the wine market, providing different substrata, some coated in colors, and specific coatings optimized for our set of ink. They’re extremely water-resistant. We’re flexible and can produce any shape of die-cutting.”

Primera has a staff that includes compliance experts and a custom label department to work on shapes, sizes and materials.

When shopping for a printer, Chalmers recommended, “Make sure you get samples of your printed labels before deciding. We offer an unconditional 30-day return policy.”

Primera’s LX 400 printer retails for $1,495, and the company also offers semi-automatic label applicators for single or front-and-back labels at $1,495 and $1,795.

Customers comment
Sierra Foothills Wine Service in Placerville, Calif., provides wine storage, logistics, trucking and warehousing for 45 other wineries, producing around 10,000 cases per year. Mark Gendron founded the company in 2010, after selling JanKris Winery in Paso Robles, Calif.

Sierra Foothills uses the Primera LX 900 to provide custom labels for clients across the country, including wine shops in Maryland, a restaurant chain in Virginia, a grocery chain and college campus stores in New England. Gendron bottles wine under his license and transfers in bond. He has distributors all over the United States.

“Distributors pick me up just for that service,” he said. “Our last order was six pallets, and we’re now doing a three-pallet order for Rhode Island.”

Although he uses commercial printers for the more elaborate labels of his own brands including JK, Wildfire, Stray Dog and Fling, he now owns two Primeras and has become a reseller for the company. His wife recently opened a retail operation in Placerville selling wines with personalized labels to commemorate weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and holidays—even a divorce.

“Our philosophy and mission,” Gendron said, is “one bottle or 1,000 cases.”

After shopping around four years ago, he decided on Primera because he found it printed faster, was more mechanized and was already programmed. “Primera has outstanding tech support,” Gendron said. “We called all the time when we started; they could manipulate it through my computer.” Each of his printers is operated by a designated computer system.

Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant LLC operates a chain of 12 restaurants ranging as far as Florida from its base in Countryside, Ill. The restaurants only serve wines from Cooper’s Hawk, which produces some 150,000 cases per year.

Cooper’s Hawk has a sideline of custom labels, mostly in extremely short, two- and three-bottle runs. After using a Primera printer “for years,” said Paul Tillman, who’s in charge of the custom-label business, last October the winery bought a QuickLabel Kiaro!

“The beautiful thing about this printer” is, according to Tillman, “It takes a little bit to get it, but once you set it, it’s perfect.” Settings are very accessible, he said, and you can set it to print over die-cuts.

The front label graphics are beautiful in Tillman’s eye and, he said, “In speed and quality, there is no comparison. There are no maintenance issues. We can print high quality with vibrant color.”

For back labels, Cooper’s Hawk still uses an older model QuickLabel printer. “More geared to pharmaceutical use,” it’s perfect for back label, low-graphic applications, Tillman said.

Many of the one-off or other short-label orders come from wine club members. “People can upload a cell phone photo. The software is built in, and we have
people in-house with Photoshop knowledge, which helps.”

For this e-commerce and DTC market, “We have six stock options. For larger clients, we can handle in-house production of custom labels with logos. They can be as intensive as you want to take it,” Tillman said.

As these experienced users describe, in-house label printers provide a powerful tool to drive custom sales and please DTC consumers. While mini-printers have obvious advantages for tiny wineries, these larger producers make it plain that they can also take a valuable place in the equipment battery for wineries of any size.

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