Adventures in bottling

Wanting to gain some real-life production experience at a winery, I approached Ed Madronich, owner of Flat Rock Cellars, to see if there was a possibility of helping out. I had a hankering to do some character-building hard labour. Lucky for me, Ed was for it.  Ross Wise, Flat Rock's talented winemaker from New Zealand contacted me and voila, I had my first assignment: bottling.
Through the cellar door

On a warm spring May morning, I somehow managed to get myself out of bed at 5:30am (ugh, so early!).  Upon a *slightly* late arrival to the winery, I noticed the mobile truck hard at work bottling the 2011 Nadja's Vineyard Riesling. Fully automated, I watched bottle after bottle get sterilized, filled with wine, sealed, labeled and boxed. Just like that! Many wineries use a mobile bottling service to cut down on costs. This particular truck bottled for Le Clos Jordanne the day before.

Pumping wine from tank
to the mobile bottling truck
I didn't know what to expect seeing how I've never worked in a winery. Images of bottles flying off of the line, smashing all over the place with me crying and then banned from ever coming back rolled through my mind.  My job for the day was to help with the bottling of the 2011 cuvee. The wine would be laid down for a duration of time to conduct a second fermentation. The result? Sparkling wine.

An example of gyropalettes
These ones are in Champagne
The crew for the day was small in number but mighty in force. Greg, the assistant winemaker, let me pour a bucket of yeast, sugar and other nutrients into one of the large steel tanks. Crawling up a tall ladder, I poured the the mixture in and hoped for the best!  The trick now was to get the wine thoroughly mixed with the additions and quickly into bottle, before the start of any fermentation.

Arranging the bottles just right 
Sparkling wine is all about gas (insert your jokes here). To create "traditional method" bubbly (similar to how they do it in Champagne), base wine is placed into strong bottles with some sugar, yeast and then sealed.  The yeast consume the sugar and in the process, create gas. That gas can't escape so it remains trapped inside the bottle. Once the yeast die (no more sugar to eat), the wine and sediment interact with one another, creating those complex aromas and flavours of baked bread and apple. No one wants to see dead yeast sediment inside the bottle. That wouldn't be appealing since sparkling wine is all about fine bubbles and clarity. The bottles are slowly turned until they are standing upside down, with the sediment trapped inside the neck of the bottle. This process of turning the bottles, called riddling, used to be done by hand. Now it's mostly done by a machine called a gyropalette. The bottlenecks are then frozen and opened under pressure. The yeast sediment is taken out and the bottles are topped off with more wine and a bit of sugar which determines the overall sweetness.

Images of Laverne & Shirley
came to mind during the day

Skid after skid of empty bottles
to be filled with wine
Even though most of the core bottling procedures were automated, there remained  a few tasks that required more manual labour.  I began my shift at the end of the line by filling the large metal cages with sealed bottles. These metal cages were to be transferred to a facility to go onto the gyropalettes. I then moved to the beginning of the line, placing empty bottles onto the conveyor belt. I thought those skids would never stop coming! Skid after skid, we had to make sure that bottles were continuously being fed into the machine. The  wine was coming - whether a bottle was there or not. I then moved to middle of the line, the point that I coined as "Laverne and Shirley". The now sealed bottles had to be placed into bins and push them down to the guys who were loading up the cages. Bottles just kept coming at me with no end in sight! I was afraid to look away even for a split second in fear that bottles would crash with eachother and fall to the ground. Well, not really but it does add a dramatic flair. The conveyor belt doesn't move that fast but you still have to keep up!

The fruits of our labour!
10,850 bottles 
By the end of the afternoon, we had 10,850 bottles of the 2011 cuvee. Amazing! I didn't know what that even looked like so I took photos to catalog the achievement. The base wine was 100% Chardonnay that had been aged in neutral barrels. Most of the wine was from 2011 with a small percentage from 2010.  Cuvee in this case means a blend of grapes from different vintages. Now we wait for a few years for the bubbles to form.  I can't wait to taste one of these bottles that I had a *very* small part in creating.

Completely exhausted, I finally understood why people say that that bottling isn't  fun. It can be grueling hard work but an important part of the entire winemaking process.  Unless we're all prepared to show up at a winery with straws for direct slurping (which I totally am), bottling is just one of those unavoidable necessities. My co-workers thought that I had gone completely mad to have taken a vacation day to do more work! Even with the incredible muscle soreness I endured afterwards, I would do it again in a heart beat.

One by one...
For my efforts, I was given a few bottles of the 2011 Nadja's Riesling bottled that morning. I was instructed to let it sit for a few months so the wine could recover from bottle shock.  A nice wine to enjoy over the summer.

2011 Nadja's Vineyard
It was a pleasure to have been welcomed into the Flat Rock family even for the one day. Thanks Ross! Thanks Ed! Hopefully there will be more opportunities in the future. I'd love to continue with these posts, highlighting the various stages of getting that wine from the vineyard into your glass.

Go visit Flat Rock Cellars and discover how well cool-climate varieties such as Riesling and Pinot Noir thrive here in Ontario:

Feel like getting your hands dirty? Flat Rock offers a fun program called "In the Winemaker's Boots":

Example of bottling
Hunter Bottling Line (YouTube)