By Dan Berger
Talk all you want about the essential nature of the growing of grapes, the art and science of viticulture not to mention topics like botany and geology.
And talk all you want about the critical nature of the wine making, with all its concerns about chemistry and microbiology.
It all can be completely undone at the moment the liquid is being transferred from the tank to the wine bottle.
Everyone involved in the production of wine, from giant wineries to home wine makers, knows of the great pitfalls in wine making. The final step in the process is the one that consumers rarely think about, but which can cause havoc.
Indeed, stores that specialize in home wine making supplies — which includes wine making kits, barrels, car-boys, pumps, hoses, and yeasts –- also stock bottling equipment. Such mundane products are usually an afterthought to many home wine makers, even though those who work in such stores try to emphasize the most important nature of them.
In 1976, the University of California at Davis offered a crash course in wine making for budding wine makers. I attended that packed two-day series of lectures by specialists and I took careful notes.
Late on the second day, a session called Winery Sanitation was less well attended by those taking the course. To many, it sounded like a boring subject. In fact, it was one of the most important issues in the wine making process.
Two UC Davis instructors implored the attendees, whether they would be working for large wineries or doing small batches at home, to keep everything as clean as an operating room. And this included the last step, bottling the wine.
The reasons were made clear. Put a fragile liquid like wine into a bottle that has not been cleaned to near-sterile conditions and there is a chance that the wine bottler will be surprised weeks or month later to find out that the fabulous wine he or she was bottling has gone off in the different and unanticipated direction.
Take, for instance, yeast. Their airborne nature means that even the tiniest spores can interact with the wine as it sits in a trough waiting to be placed into the bottle. If the wine isn’t bone dry, such yeasts can create a mini-fermentation in the bottle resulting in unwanted flavors and aromas.
(Before bottling at most wineries, each bottle gets a shot of nitrogen – to displace oxygen from the bottle.)
As a result of the potential contamination of the wine, even small wineries choose to use professional bottling equipment.
Since such bottling machines can be expensive, smaller wineries are always on the lookout for used, serviceable lines for sale. One problem with such gadgets is that they can be finicky and break at the worst times.
Decades ago I was interviewing a wine maker who had had a long and successful career. I inquired about his first job decades earlier – how did he get it? I asked.
He laughed and said he was being interviewed for a position as assistant wine maker and knew that two very highly qualified persons had already interviewed for the position.
“I was sitting in the wine maker’s office when the door opened and the wine bottler came in and said that the bottling line had stopped. He described what it sounded like.
“The wine maker looked like he had just been hit with a baseball bat, but I said, ‘Let me look at it.’ I had some experience with that equipment before.
“Well, when I got downstairs, I could see what the problem was and I fixed it in two minutes with a screwdriver. I was hired on the spot.”
Assume a home wine bottler uses a gravity-fed, six-spigot bottler, with a container that holds the wine being bottled. Time is then of the essence since the wine is open to the air, which can harm delicate, aromatic wines.
Those who live in wine country regions may be able to transport their wines to a nearby winery to have it professionally bottled to avoid oxygen. And smaller wineries can contract to have their wines bottled by one of the industry’s mobile bottlers, who truck their mobile bottling line into wineries that do not have such equipment.
In both of these cases, bottling has to be scheduled well in advance, to make certain that the bottling equipment will be available. It’s not unheard-of for a small winery to schedule its mobile bottler to be at the winery six months before the appointment was arranged.
Obviously, this last aspect of the wine making process — putting it in the bottle — is a crucial task that must not be overlooked. The quality of the wine is at stake.