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FEBRUARY 2008:
Will Work for Wine: How wine gets from the barrel to the bottle.


cass_sign.jpgPeople are always asking me what I'm going to do with my wine education. Most of them assume I'm going to become a sommelier or a winemaker. In reality, neither is an option because both require more time and hard work than I'm willing to give to indulge my love of wine. I'd rather drink wine than serve it and with so many other people taking the trouble to make it, there's no reason I have to.

That being said, learning about the process, in limited doses, is quite fascinating to me and really helps to explain why wines taste the way they do. To that end, the founding members of the Studio City branch of the Friends of Cass Winery (an unofficial, nascent organization) volunteered to help bottle their upcoming 2006 releases of Grenache and Mourvedre in the ever-growing Paso Robles area. We weren't sure what we were in for, except we knew it would be a bit of work and probably quite fun given the natures of the winery owners.

With a start time set at 8am, we headed to the local Starbucks, for our daily jolt of caffeine and headed out to the winery. Thankfully, the rain that threatened all morning stayed away, since the bottling takes place in the back of a semi-truck in a parking lot behind the winery. Water and cardboard do not mix. Since most wineries only bottle 4-6 times a year – depending on volume and variety of wines produced – they do not own their own equipment, which is expensive and often troublesome to maintain, because it would lay dormant most of the year and take up too much space. Of the over 100 wineries in this area only 2 or 3 have their own bottling lines. Everyone else hires the mobile trucks, which are kept busy 365 days of the year.

cass_foil.jpgOnce the wines are ready to be bottled, they're moved from the barrels where they've been aging into large stainless steel tanks, then hooked up to the bottling machinery by hoses. It's up to the winemaker to estimate how many cases of wine will be generated in order to make sure they have enough bottles, corks and labels on hand to accommodate the volume of juice.

The empty, sanitized bottles are loaded into one side of the truck, which then spins them through various stages – filling the bottle, corking the bottle, adding the foil cap, sealing the cap and labeling the bottle, which is almost all done mechanically. The finished bottles then basically wind up where they started and are then placed in cases, packed on palettes and moved into storage until they're ready for release.

cass_bottles.jpgThe truck is pretty efficient, needing people for only a few jobs: placing the foil capsules on the bottles, emptying and filling the cases and building the palettes. Since carrying cases of wine, even ten feet from the chute to the palette is too much heavy lifting for me, I tried my hand at adding the foil. Not only is it extremely loud in the truck – the clanking of bottles and whirl of machinery at deafening levels – but the line moves very quickly and doesn't stop until the tank is empty. More than one reference was made to Lucy and Ethel. It was both mind-numbing and nerve-wracking; however, with 4 people working at a time it was pretty easy to make sure all the bottles got covered.

In the end, with so many helping hands, it took between 3-4 hours to bottle about 900 cases of wine. It's a much more interesting and less dirty process than working a harvest. Trust me on that. Most wineries need help, so if you're interested offer to give your favorite one a hand. They usually "pay" with wine, which gives you a chance to revisit the process while sipping the product and a greater appreciation for how it gets into your glass. Many thanks to Steve and Ted for allowing us to volunteer and Chef Brandon for his lovely post-bottling lunch.


THE BOTTLING PROCESS
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Moving the empties up to the truck.

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In they come. The ones on the right are filled
and ready to be corked.

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Putting the foil caps on.

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Out they come, where the cases get
labeled and dated.

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The men pack a palette.

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Dave has a hard time letting go.

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All gone.:(

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Some that got away.



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