The Most Important Step in Winemaking That Nobody Talks About
Harvest: Sunlit vines, sweeping vistas and artisans working around the clock picking and crushing grapes. Blending the final cuvée: the master Winemaker contemplates a sparkling array of nectar-filled glasses, carefully selecting the perfect blend. All highly Instagramable, all part of winery marketing campaigns and part of the public’s notion of how wine comes to be. What doesn’t get the “likes” and “shares” not because it’s not important but because it’s usually not talked about as much? Bottling.
I’m thinking about bottling a lot these days for a couple of reasons. One, I’m in the thick of the pre-Harvest bottling season where we package up our “early to bottle” wines (read: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir lots which need less than a year of aging) before the grapes start flying and two, I’m breaking in a new state-of-the-art custom bottling facility in Napa, Infinity Bottling. Being the first bottling client across the line isn’t without its challenges but it’s been truly exciting to watch all that shiny stainless steel come over from Italy, be assembled and breathed into life by an expert team of handlers. Disclosure: the President and GM, Jessica Tuteur, used to by our Operations Manager at Plata Wine Partners before she decided to open her own bottling facility and I’ve worked with most of her QC (Quality Control) and technical team at other wineries over the years.
See what I did there? In the preceding paragraph I threw out some technospeak, industrial-sounding terms and a couple of acronyms. Not exactly the stuff winery marketing campaigns are made of. Aside from Jordan Winery’s brilliant bottling line “Despacito” parody video, bottling is hardly glamorous enough to merit major content dollars.
That’s a pity because of the important part bottling plays in everyone’s final experience of that wine. Perhaps because I’ve spent an intensive last two weeks in a “Laverne & Shirley”-esque world of boxes, bottles and conveyor belts watching hundreds of bottles fly past my eyes, I’ve had a lot of time to think about bottling’s role in the winemaking and, eventually, in the wine-enjoying process.
Why is bottling so important?
-It’s the last time for the winemaker to touch the wine, to really get it right or get it horribly wrong.
–If you’re not bottling with the right crew at the right facility, it *can* go horribly wrong. From poor sanitation to a wrinkled label to a slightly out-of-round batch of bottles from the glass company, there are a million places a bottling run can go (literally) pear-shaped in an instant.
-It can be as tough, if not tougher, than Harvest. At Harvest there’s sometimes a rogueish devil-may-care attitude that prevails because of the chaos and time crush of the moment. In contrast, bottling is about a measured precision and about each machine, each packaging component (bottle, cork, capsule, label, box) working in concert within millimeters of spec. Throw in multiple packaging changes, different wine types and tight to-market timelines and you can get an idea of the pressure and stakes involved. Try to align all the moving parts of Harvest and sometimes, with a lick and a promise, you’ll get away with one less pumpover among hundreds or a few imperfect clusters making their way into a 5-ton fermentor. Fail to align all the moving parts at bottling and you’re courting disaster.
-It’s the winemaker’s last chance to say goodbye and Godspeed before launching their creation out into the world. One of my favorite parts about being a winemaker is the thought of my wines making someone’s day brighter or dinner better. Bottling may not be the most glamorous or photogenic part of the winemaking process but it’s a rite every wine must go through and one that is full of potential potholes and pitfalls. Getting it right is stressful and most winemakers cite bottling as their least favorite part of the whole process. It’s not always fun, it’s often maddening and bottling correctly certainly isn’t something we win big accolades from customers or critics for. Bottling is perhaps the most important but also most under the radar part of the winemaking process. So here’s to bottling (or kegging, or canning, these days). It’s a necessary step of the process and one that deserves a little bit more love, attention and kudos from the rest of the wider world.
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners, a luxury and ultra-premium custom wine company based in Napa, responsible for such brands as Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards, and Verada Wines among many others. Up until the brands were recently sold to Vintage Wine Estates, Plata was responsible for Layer Cake and Cherry Pie wines. @alisoncrowewine firstname.lastname@example.org.