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A Year in the Life of a Winery: Part Four

Bottling day is a time to celebrate a year of hard work

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BEA AHBECK/NEWS-SENTINEL Ana Martinez puts ZInStar bottles into boxes during bottling day at Lucas Winery in Lodi Friday, Jan. 10, 2020.

On a crisp January morning, as dew clings to grass in the nearby vineyard, the Mobile Wine Line trailer sits idling as the crew sets it up for the next vintage. In the next eight hours, the cutting edge bottling truck, combined with some elbow grease, will fill over 20,000 bottles of wine.

It’s a big day at the winery, where all the hard work throughout the previous years comes to fruition. After having been aged in French oak barrels for around year, the 2018 ZinStar wine harvest will be bottled. At the end of the day, Lucas Winery’s Chardonnay, Rose, and Petite Sirah will also have been bottled.

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BEA AHBECK/NEWS-SENTINEL David Lucas oversees the bottling process during bottling day at Lucas Winery in Lodi Friday, Jan. 10, 2020.

For the occasion, a big crew has been assembled to assure the day goes efficiently and smoothly.

Up to two weeks before bottling day, winemaker Heather Pyle Lucas began working with the wines, planning for bottling. Occasionally, the oak barrels each wine rests in contains a little bit of sawdust, so Pyle Lucas runs each vintage through a coarse filter to make sure it is clean and ready for bottling.

“Sometimes, depending on the weather, she’s out there with her rain jacket on, filtering wine,” Lucas said.

Finally, the big day is here. It’s the culmination of the complex puzzle of all the pruning, véraison thinning, beneficial bug application, irrigation strategy, and so much more. All that effort comes together in the (almost) final product on bottling day.

And on this day, more pieces of the puzzle have to be set in place.

“Bottling day is a lot of moving parts that have to come together,” Lucas said. “The labels have to come, the glass has to come, the corks have to come, the cases of wine have to come, all at the same time.”

In the early years, David Lucas used to hand bottle around a thousand cases of wine by hand, with the help of his children. During the winter months, the family would sit around the fire in their little hut. Lucas would put the labels on, then pass the bottles down to his kids, who would put the corks in.

“Sometimes you’d open up a bottle and it would have two corks in it!,” Lucas laughed.

But with the advent of the mobile bottling line, a process that previously took months can now be accomplished in a single day.

“Today we have mobile wine lines that can back into the winery and we hook up the hose to one side of the truck, and the empty glass go into the other side. And the beauty of it is it is so clean, every bottle is filled to the legal height, all the labels are put on correctly,” Lucas said.

As the bottling line starts up again, the clinking of hundreds of bottles rattling down the production line returns.

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BEA AHBECK/NEWS-SENTINEL Bo Baca puts some unfilled bottle back as the Mobile Wine Line truck is set up for the next wine during bottling day at Lucas Winery in Lodi Friday, Jan. 10, 2020.

The automated bottling, corking and labeling and machines run efficiently; so do the human helpers. One group of workers, at the back of the semi, makes sure there is a steady supply of new bottles added to the line.

Each bottle makes its way first to a nitrogen generator, which displaces the oxygen inside of it and blows out any little pieces of cardboard carton that might be in there. Then it is fed into the circular bottling section, where the wine is quickly filled in a seemingly choreographed liquid dance until it is full, a process repeated with each new bottle.

The bottles are sealed with corks before moving into a machine which puts capsules on each one. Around the corner a spinner comes next, which stretches the material down over the bottle.

Then it’s on to the labeling machine, where labels are affixed to each bottle with perfect precision. Front label first, then the back label, each being fed from a large roll of pre-printed labels.

Now lined up along the opposite wall from where they started, the bottles move in tandem towards another group of workers with quick hands.

Two by two, they grab the bottles, quickly filling the boxes with 12 bottles each. After each box is sealed, a label with the vintage and a time stamp is affixed. Lastly, the boxes make their way down a belt at the end of the truck into the waiting arms of volunteers and workers. Some jostle and jokingly try to beat each other to grab the next box coming down the line. Laughter rings out across the winery.

The final step is to carefully place the boxes into a nearby room, where they are gently stacked just so, ensuring stability for the valuable liquid inside. From there, they will be moved to an off-site bottle storage/aging facility, awaiting the perfect time to finally be enjoyed.

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BEA AHBECK/NEWS-SENTINEL Shelby White, David Lucas, Eliza Hess and Bo Baca take a selfie together during bottling day at Lucas Winery in Lodi Friday, Jan. 10, 2020.

The Mobile Wine Line is a technological feat, developed by owner Harry Hakala’s mother, Eva Drummond.

Drummond heard that in Germany, winemakers take their wine to people who own bottling equipment, Hakala said. She thought, “Wouldn’t it be easier to do the other way around?” — bring the bottling services to the wineries.

So Mobile Wine Line was created.

Bottling on site brings another bonus to the winermaker.

“They can call the wine estate bottled,” Hakala said. “It was grown, procured and bottled at the same site. They have total control over it.”

Pyle Lucas really appreciates being able to work with Mobile Wine Line, she said. Bottling is work for the experts, she said, and if something goes wrong, they know exactly how to fix it.

“Our responsibility is the wine, their responsibility is the packaging, and they do a great job and we only bottle one day a year,” she said.

Lucas concurs.

“The mobile bottling lines have really helped us preserve and protect the integrity of the wine. And the kids like it a lot more too!” he said with a laugh.

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