Bottling (more than you want to know)

Well it’s almost August and there’s been a lot going on, so let’s get caught up!

We bottled all our 2004 reds near the end of June.  2004 Selene Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004 Selene ‘Chesler’ Red Wine, and 2004 Selene ‘Dead Fred Vineyard’ Cabernet Sauvignon.  I was very pleased with the way the bottling turned out.   All the wines taste very good off the bottling line, no bottle shock!   That’s always exciting.  We might get the Dead Fred Vineyard Cabernet out as early as this fall, since the 2003 Cabernet will be very close to sold out at that point.  The Chesler and the Napa Valley Cab both taste really good as well.

A lot of stuff goes into bottling.  I think a lot of people are aware that it really stresses people in the wine industry out when they are bottling.  It’s because it is kind of your last chance to screw up something with the wine.  There are so many different operations going on when you are bottling, that it’s really easy to have something go wrong, whether it is your fault or not.

You are dealing with various suppliers that need lead time.  You have glass, corks, capsules, labels and boxes.  All of which needs to be ordered in advance because corks and capsules for the most part come from Europe, as most glass does too.  This means you need to be thinking six months in advance.   You have to know what your package is going to be, you have to have your blends finalized so you know how much wine you are bottling, otherwise you will miss your mark.

Glass.  We had a glass problem this year, basically some stuff that comes from France for all our reds.  The supplier that brings it in for us had to reject the glass due to quality control issues.  So we had our hand forced into taking, rather than champagne green, antique green.  There wasn’t a good alternative bottle in the champagne green.  The one alternative bottle that they have from Mexico wasn’t quite there yet as far as quality control.  It’s a very nice bottle, but there were issues with it that I didn’t want to deal with.  So I had to end up going with a different color, but the same shape of glass, which you can’t tell when the bottle is full, but when it empties you can tell it’s a different color.

Corks add another issue.  We do a lot of sensory on corks to be as sure as possible no one gets a corked bottle.  What that translates to is testing about 30 corks from every single bale we buy.  A bale is between 5,000 and 10,000 corks.  For our last bottling we were looking at least 2 to 4 bales.  We needed 18,000 corks.  Obviously you need to taste more bales than you need to buy, because there will be some you will reject.  It can take a while to process the corks, and sometimes a while to get them here, but mostly you are testing corks that are already here in the United States. 

Basically what happens is we take 30 corks from each bale, and we like to taste 120 to 150 corks at each tasting.  Anything past that and you’ve pretty much lost your sharpness, or ability to smell off aromas.   We soak them in diluted vodka (about 14%).  Each cork is single soaked, so you have 120 to 150 different soaks.  They stay overnight, and get poured into wine glasses for us to smell them the next day.  We are looking for corky flavors or off aromas, so we can decide if we are going to use a particular bale or not.  For every 30 corks we can’t have one cork that is not acceptable as far as aroma.   That keeps us statistically (theoretically) well under .5%, or less than one bottle in 200.   We’d like to make it zero, but that is nearly impossible.

We are working with a new supplier this year for corks that has a different technique for processing the corks.  There are a whole lot of issues with cork processing in Europe.  Basically you have to do the best you can, and do your statistical sampling, because no matter what magical process a supplier says they have, it all gets down to what does it tastes like? 

The whole thing for me, the important part, is single soak.  A lot of suppliers in their quality control will soak multiple corks as one unit.  They will take 50 to 100 corks and do a batch soak.  The problem with that is the good corks will absorb all the bad flavors.  So if you have one cork in that 100 cork batch soak that is flaming TCA, all the rest of the good corks (99) will absorb the TCA, so none of it will get in the solution.  When that solution is analyzed, which is mostly done with GCMS, you basically won’t catch that one bad cork, because all the good corks absorbed the TCA.  That’s the reason I like to do single soaking.  It’s a protection for everybody.  Ultimately it’s a protection for the consumer.  It’s a protection for us since we don’t want to send bad bottles out.  And it’s protection for the supplier as well, since we don’t want to come back and say, “hey we have a problem with cork taint”.

We want to make sure everyone gets a good deal out of it.  In my opinion, having tried other closures and seeing other alternatives, cork is the best closure for wine if it just didn’t have any taint or off aromas.  So that’s the thing we are trying to avoid as much as possible and have the good aspects of cork as a closure for wine.  Corks are a big deal, but everything else is a big deal too. 

Labels.  Even though most of the labels that we print we have been printing for a while, you still need to do press checks.  You have to be there when they start printing, so you make sure the colors are correct.  The Selene label is a 4 color label, it has a lot of registration issues, and it’s a granite background paper.  You want to make sure you get everything right so you have some consistency from year to year, and you have a quality label.  Printers are busy businesses so they can’t always tell you the exact time it’s going to happen.  When the press check is going to happen, you have to keep your calendar free so you can be ready for that phone call that says, we are going to run tomorrow morning, or this afternoon, or in an hour – can you be here.

Wine.  Then you have to make sure your wine is ready.  Are you going to filter it or not?  We have been pretty lucky these past few years in that we have been keeping the wine really clean in terms of microbial issues.  We haven’t needed to filter.  Clarity is also an issue that we need to consider.  We had all our wines nice and clear from the rackings that have taken place.  A nice separation of the clean wine from the lees at each racking.   It doesn’t always happen though.  I’m sure that there are those of you out there that have had wines that are a little cloudy.  It doesn’t necessarily ruin a wine but most wineries and winemakers, if they had their druthers, would like to have their wines clean without filtration.

Then you get to the actual Bottling line.  You have at least a half a dozen different machines.  Bottle washers, purgers, fillers, corkers, foilers, and labelers.  You also have people that need to work these things.  When you have that many things, you are asking for something to go wrong somewhere, even if for just a short time. 

Everything came together, we had a really good bottling, and we got it all done in one day.  We even got some magnums bottled!  Tracy has been bugging me to do magnums for a couple vintages now.  It’s difficult because we always do small amounts, and it’s not worth changing the bottling line over.  You need to change the bottling line over every time you change the bottle.  There are different things that fit into the machinery to make it work for different size bottles.   It ends up not being worth it for 5 cases here, and 10 cases there.  I end up doing them by hand, myself, because I don’t trust anyone else to do them.  I’ve done them for so long that I know all the mistakes that you can make.  Especially when consumers are buying a big bottle, they are expecting something really special, so you want to make sure it’s not ruined because of any quality control issues.  So I just put my perfectionist hat on and go at it. 

So we do have some magnums in all the different bottlings that we did and like I said, I’m really happy with how all the 2004’s are tasting after bottling.