Winemaking is a business surrounded by mystery and folklore. But when it comes to bottling, the intrigue disappears in favor of efficiency and cool gadgetry. Contrary to popular belief, most wineries don’t bottle their own wine. Instead, they rely on mobile bottling machines — otherwise known as the coolest wine technology you’ve never heard of.
Likely, you’ve never heard of it or seen it because mobile bottling lines move incognito, masterfully disguised as plain old tractor-trailers. Inside, however, these truck drivers have swapped cases of beer or groceries for a complex amalgamation of steel bolts, screws, and conveyor belts, all of which give these movable bottling lines their industry nickname: “Million Dollar Trucks.”
That nickname isn’t an exaggeration. Most bottling equipment is imported from Germany or Italy, and the technology that puts corks, caps, and labels on bottles is anything but simple. It takes capital and know-how to operate the cargo that can fill, cork, label, and pack 2,000 bottles on conveyor belts in a space smaller than most Manhattan kitchens. And it’s on wheels.
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The complexity of modern bottling is what makes mobile bottling lines a win for wineries, and great business. The short list of requirements includes a bottle cleaner, filler, corks or screw caps, foils, and labels. There are separate machines for each task, so a lot of moving parts — literally. Add in that most wineries use several sizes and shapes of glass and labels, and the prospect of bottling quickly goes from thrilling to terrifying.
For small and large wineries, mobile bottlers remove tons of stress, guesswork, and trial and error from bottling. Trucks come complete with operators, and often a small crew well-versed in selecting the best settings for labels, bottles of various sizes, and the knowledge required to fix these machines when something goes wrong. It’s the opposite of the scenario I faced recently during a volunteer bottling day, where pushing the EMERGENCY STOP button was all I could do.
Equipment, know-how, and mobility make using mobile bottlers a no-brainer for most wineries, compared to the high costs of purchasing a bottling line, which can be prohibitively expensive and take up critical space inside a winery. The painstakingly slow hand-bottling process — which takes roughly two minutes per bottle, plus considerable elbow grease — is also inconvenient or impossible for wineries because it requires significant manpower and limits bottling to a few hundred cases per day. On the flip side, mobile bottling lines can package several hundred cases per hour.
That efficiency makes it easy for wineries to rationalize the price of hiring a mobile line, a cost often based on the number of cases to be bottled. Invented in the 1970s, these trucks dominate the wine bottling industry on the West Coast for three reasons: They’re efficient, easy to hire, and let wineries label their wines “Estate Bottled.”
On bottling days, these trucks get an early start, adjusting equipment like the label machine so that each label is placed in the correct space on the bottle, and securing it so every bottle is the same. Similar test procedures are done to make sure the corks or screw caps are fitted properly and bottles are filled to the proper level.
Then, like clockwork, the truck bursts to life. In a space just 100 inches wide, empty bottles are placed at one end of the truck, and wine is pumped from tanks inside the winery onto the truck. Like toy soldiers, bottles parade on tiny conveyor belts and are filled, corked, labeled, and packed back into case boxes ready for bottle aging or shipment to a glass near you!
Inside the truck, the bottling team watches for irregular bottles amidst the din of clanging metal parts and the swoosh of air-pressured corking machines. If wineries need to switch between cuvées or bottle sizes throughout the day, a few quick turns of a screwdriver is all it takes for bottling-line mechanics to adjust their parts and keep on rolling.
In the span of a few days or weeks, a winery’s entire annual production can go from barrel to bottle on these machines. At the end of a job, the team simply hits the “off” button, rolls down the doors, and speeds away. The process might not be as mystical as spontaneous fermentation, but you’ll never look at a semi-truck in wine country the same way again.