[By Richard Sheppard in Napa Valley, California] Rising at dawn, I make the sleepy-eyed half hour drive from from where I live in Healdsburg (Sonoma County, California) to Calistoga (Napa County), to see my friend Vince Tofanelli’s wine bottling operation first hand. Pulling into the dirt parking lot, I see Vince gesturing to a man beside a trailer embellished with the name Top Shelf Bottling.
“Hey, Richard,” he says. “Come on over. We’re working on label placement.”
Vince points to three bottles lined up on the trailer steps, labels placed at varying heights. Along with Greg from Top Shelf, we stand in a row, contemplating our choices.
“I think the label’s too high on this one,” Vince says, pointing. Greg picks up the bottle and disappears inside the van.
A few minutes later Greg returns with another bottle, the label a bit lower. Vince asks my opinion, and we agree it works.
“Okay, let’s go with it,” Vince tells Greg.
It’s expensive to own a bottling line, especially if it’s only used a few weeks out of the year. It’s much more cost effective to hire a mobile bottling company. Vince explains that he and other small wineries pool their resources, bottling at the same time to save money.
Today they are bottling at Envy Winery in Calistoga. “I’m feeling nervous,” Vince says, arms crossed tight. “High anxiety even.
“You probably wouldn’t think bottling would be stressful since the wine is already made, but it’s even more stressful than harvest. Bottling mistakes can be catastrophic, and once a wine is in the bottle, it’s too late to make corrections.”
Greg returns and hands Vince a full bottle of zinfandel. He takes a swig, then nods approval.
“I just confirmed that what’s in the bottle tastes like my wine,” he says. Then he shrugs. “It’s not easy to tell at this point. It’ll be six months before the wine settles back down. Bottle shock is a real thing.”
A loud whir cuts through the still morning air, soon becoming a roar. From inside the van comes the clinking of glass along with a mechanized hum and clatter. The bottling process has officially begun. The tension is as heavy as an early morning fog.
Next to the van I notice a large metal tank with hoses connecting it to the side of the vehicle and ask Vince about it.
“That’s nitrogen,” he says. It’s used for many things, including replacing air in the empty bottle before filling and pushing or pressurizing the bottling line.
|The first full case of wine heads down a narrow rail lined with rollers.|
The first full case of wine heads down a narrow rail lined with rollers. I cringe, picturing cases sliding off and onto the pavement, crushing glass and spilling wine on impact.
“I stopped worrying about it a long time ago,” Vince reassures me. “Somehow it just works.
“There are so many factors that can go wrong. The bottles must be filled to the correct level with the labels properly applied. And that’s after I’ve already made sure the labels have been printed correctly, the corks have been labeled right, the foils have been stamped and the bottles have been delivered.”
Greg steps out of the van and shouts above the din, “Want to see the operation from the inside?”
|Greg managing the bottle operation from inside the van.|
There isn’t much available space inside the bottling truck. We squeeze in between the wall and the line, watching as vessels whiz along railed pathways, clanging and banging from one stage of processing to another. At the far end, two women guide the operation.
“You might think with so much going on that problems would arise, but actually the process works pretty smoothly,” he says. “If we have any trouble at all, it’s usually with applying the foil that wraps the top. Sometimes it gets stuck.”
The entire set-up is impressive, especially the way all the equipment fits into this small van.
Outside, Vince stands with hands on hips, inspecting a case of freshly packed wine. Cases slide down the chute one after another. Everything appears to be going smoothly, and although Vince is still tense, he’s beginning to relax a bit.
After a couple of hours of activity, bottling is completed, with cases stacked and ready for storage. I’m looking forward to opening a bottle of Vince’s zinfandel when it’s done resting, especially now that I’ve witnessed this genie being put into the bottle.