Bottling Day…Why It’s Such a Big Deal!

Bottling the 2010 Bjornson A few months ago we bottled our 2010 vintage of Bjornson Vineyard Pinot Noir and everything went like clockwork; thanks in part to great people and great equipment, namely our Winemaker, John Grochau and Mobile Bottling Line Proprietor, John Casteel (more on these two later…).  I still remember that day quite vividly, with intense feelings of nervousness, elation and gratitude.  With only 50 cases produced, you may wonder, why is bottling such a big deal?

 In order to understand why bottling is such a stressful and emotional event for winemakers, it might help to think of bottling as “giving birth” to the wine.  This analogy may seem a bit extreme, but in fact, bottling is the event that the Feds use to classify a wine as taxable.  This analogy is not meant to offend any new mothers out there; but when you think about it, bottling is the culmination of a two-year “labor of love”.

 In winter, the vines are carefully pruned in anticipation of next fall’s harvest.  Throughout the spring and summer, the vines are meticulously tended.  In fall the grapes are tenderly harvested and gently fermented into young wine.  During the second winter, spring, summer and fall, the wine is quietly barrel-aged and vigilantly monitored to protect it from harmful invaders (such as oxygen) that could diminish its quality.  Finally, after a two-year (or more) gestation, the wine is ready to be bottled.

But, as you may expect, there is a lot to do before the wine can actually be bottled.  Just as expectant parents scurry about purchasing baby items, decorating nurseries and making countless decisions in preparation for the arrival of a new family member, so too does the winemaker in preparation for the arrival of the newly bottled wine.  The winemaker is engaged in dozens of decisions and activities such as:  blending, filtering stabilizing the wine for exposure to heat/cold, ensuring the wine is viable for long-term storage, acquiring closures (cork or screw cap) purchasing bottles or other packaging materials, designing/printing labels, getting a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) from the Feds, and so on.  All of this must come together on one magically stressful wonderfully intense memorable day – bottling day.

Ordinarily many of the pre-bottling decisions and preparations are fairly routine.  For example, once the label art has been designed, then the only question each year is how many labels to print, or how many bottles to order, and so on.  But for us, these pre-bottling activities turned out to be anything but routine.  First, we decided to barrel age an additional six months.  This meant that all of the bottling preparations were postponed until year-end.  Then, the 2011 harvest turned out to be rather late.  In addition, I had acquired my first harvest internship at Bethel Heights which lasted until mid-December (described in my last blog, Harvest 2011 – Reflections of an Internship at Bethel Heights).  After that, all of my thoughts and actions were focused on the Holidays, and somehow all of the year-end bottling preparations were forgotten.

Suddenly, sometime in January of 2012, I awoke from my post-holiday slumber and learned that my glass supplier no longer carried wine bottles, my cork vendor was unwilling to supply my minuscule quantity, and my label printer couldn’t squeeze our order into the press schedule.  Basically, I needed to find a new glass vendor, a new cork supplier, a new capsule dealer, AND a new label printer in less than four weeks – really!  I wondered if it was really worth it to “reinvent the wheel” for only 50 cases.  To keep the “birth analogy” going here, it was a little like discovering that you’re having twins a month before your due-date.  It was truly a scramble, but by this point there was no turning back and I persevered.

In addition to the pre-bottling packaging decisions, we also met with our winemaker, John Grochau to determine our blend.  I had always wondered how a winemaker determines which barrels to blend for a particular wine, and if I would be able to learn this craft.  Here’s how it went for us…

John Grochau, friend and winemaker
Before we arrived for our first session of blending trials, John sampled a small (325 mL) bottle from each of the 12 barrels from our vineyard.  For each sample, John noted key information, such as Pinot Noir Clone, fermentation details, barrel type, etc.  He kept this data separate, so that we would have an unbiased blind tasting. 
 Before we started tasting, we briefly discussed what we liked and what we were hoping to achieve in our 2010 blend.  We tasted each sample in pairs, independently jotting down tasting notes.  After a couple of minutes we would discuss our opinions and together choose our favorite.  After the first round of tasting, we had eliminated six, and only six bottles remained for our final blend.  From there, we mixed two-barrel blends, three-barrel blends, etc. until we felt we had a “winner”.  But even with only six barrels to blend from, there are literally countless combinations.  The mathematician in me worried that we would never be able to determine the “perfect blend”.  This is where the science of winemaking ends and the art of winemaking begins.

John and Mark have similar palettes, and it didn’t take long for them to agree on the “winning combination”.  The only problem was me.  Their blend was bold with a bit of earthiness, a soft smooth mouth-feel, and a nice finish.  I wanted all that, but MORE.  I wanted more fruit and aromatics; and I stubbornly refused to settle on this point.  (Those of you who know me may find it hard to believe that I can be stubborn at times.)

Let’s just say that in the interest of preserving marital relations, John sent us home with the six samples and advised that we give our palettes a rest.  That proved to be good advice, and the next day we arrived at our idea of a perfect blend within a few trials.  One step closer to bottling day, and equilibrium restored to our relationship.

Finally, in late February 2012, all the preparations were made and we were ready to bottle!  I anxiously drove our F350 flatbed to the winery to pick up our newly bottled 2010 vintage (not unlike how expectant parents arrive at the hospital with an empty car seat for their newborn).  When I arrived, the mobile bottle truck was set up and bottling was just getting underway.  If you’ve never seen a mobile bottling line, you can think of it as a giant complex piece of stainless steel equipment with lots of moving parts.  It can almost be compared to a delivery room, because everything has to work precisely and be completely sterile.  John Casteel, owner of the bottling line, might even be compared to an experienced anesthesiologist.  He calmly monitors the bottling process, and jumps in instantaneously if part of the line needs adjustment.  Everything was running smoothly but I was told it would be some time before they bottled the Bjornson.  Read, “Why don’t you go to the hospital cafeteria and get something to eat because it’s going to be awhile.”

Even though it was only mid-morning, I realized that I was famished- bottling day is stressful.  I decided to take their advice and grab a bite to eat.  When I returned, the Bjornson was on the line.  John held up a bottle and admired the label as if her were examining a newborn.  A perfect smile lit up his face and instantly melted my bottling jitters away. John's Perfect Smile Melts Away Bottling Jitters 

Within minutes, all 600 bottles of the 2010 Bjornson Vineyard Pinot Noir were in cases and loaded on pallets.  John Grochau forked the pallets onto our flatbed and carefully tied it down.  By early afternoon, I was headed back to Salem with my “precious little bundle” on board.

Now that the wine has been safely “delivered” to bottle, there is no doubt in my mind that it was totally “worth it” for only 50 cases.  And, like any parent will say when describing their newborn, “it’s perfect”!

 Stay tuned for our next blog, “Growing Up in the Vines” by our son, Kris Bjornson.