Putting A Cork In It

By Posted on Apr 01 2010 | By


When a mobile bottler puts the wrap on a day’s work, some 10,000 new bottles of wine are ready for sale. Not bad for a day’s labor, eh?

And if it weren’t for their enterprise, the cost of your favorite Virginia Chardonnay might just be higher.

Blue Moon Bottling—one of just three such firms in Virginia—is based out of Oley and Judy Olsen’s home located a few miles south of Orlean, VA. Most folks are unaware such a business even exists, including their neighbors. Nonetheless, the service rendered by circuit-rider bottling companies is critical to the success of Virginia wine.

By the end of 2010, it’s projected 170 bonded wineries will be operating in the Old Dominion, a dramatic increase from only one in 1975. Today, Virginia ranks fifth in wine producing states behind California, Washington, Oregon and New York.


An extraordinary amount of work goes into producing wine: from cultivating the delicate grapes, to harvesting the fruit, making the wine, operating a tasting room, and marketing the product. It’s a demanding and capital-intensive business. An oft heard line in the industry is, “If you want to make a small fortune in Virginia wine, start with a large one.”

A bottling firm can reduce a winery’s workload and cut costs. And their clients know it.

Blue Moon is in partnership with Bottle Boy Mobile Bottling, a firm owned by Joe Sullivan. Sullivan has twenty years experience in the wine industry and thirteen years as a pro bottler. Today, rather than actively bottle he serves as a consultant to Blue Moon, and for good cause. “It takes about two years of practicable experience to become proficient with the complex equipment and five years to master it. That’s just one reason there are so few commercial lines in operation. It’s a technically challenging business,” says Sullivan.

Oley couldn’t agree more. “I’ve been working the line and had Joe yell, ‘The labeler is down!’ How does he know? He hears it. I can’t even hear myself talk when the line is running but he picks up on the sound of a downed labeler. Amazing.”

Two other firms providing service to Virginia wineries are Landwirt Mobile Wine Bottling, out of Harrisonburg, and a relatively new entrant in the business, Virginia Wine Bottling, owned by Mark Lacy, headquartered in Orlean. Lacy says his market research revealed eighty percent of the state’s wineries employ a mobile firm. Together, these three companies service well over a hundred state wineries.

So how does a bottling line work? It starts with a gas guzzling, seven miles-per-gallon rig weighing over 20,000 pounds and displaying a sticker price as high as $650,000, if purchased new. The Olsens lease Sullivan’s thirty-five foot gooseneck trailer pulled by their Ford F550. The trailer-designed unit enables access to even the smallest farm wineries where winding dirt roads and terror inducing blind turns demand vehicle maneuverability.

Inside the rig is an entire bottling line. Production starts at an acceptance unit where the empty bottles are fed down a conveyor line to be water rinsed of any packing materials, sparged with nitrogen to displace oxygen, filled with wine and leveled to exactly 750-millilitres. The cork is then compressed and inserted, and a capsule dropped on top of the bottle and pressure spun into place. From there the front and back labels are smoothly affixed and the finished bottles shunted around a curving conveyor line toward the back of the trailer where their journey began.

At the end of the line, a winery employee rapidly fills cardboard cases, two bottles at a time. And with a final hand push, each twelve-bottle case glides down a roller coaster ramp into the waiting arms of winery employees brandishing sealing tape and carton labels.

If you recall the I Love Lucy chocolate factory episode, you’ll get a good idea of the complexity of the operation. Of course, bottling pros don’t fall pitifully behind as poor Lucy did.


And why does a winery employ a bottler rather than undertake the job themselves? Cost and lack of experience. The installation of a small, privately owned line runs around $150,000 and can soar over $500,000 for a large producer. And after installation, a proprietor must have experienced employees to run it.

Mark Lacy's Virginia Wine Bottling Rig

Beyond its basic operation, a bottler needs specialized mechanical skills to deal with line failure and parts replacement. Bottling operates in a real time environment. This is not a machine you schedule your Sears repairman to come and fix. Think thousands of moving parts.

Gary Landwirt, owner of the Harrisonburg firm, says, “I’ve seen wineries build an in-house line and end up dismantling it and contracting with a mobile operation. The headaches of running a unit are often too much to deal with.”

And if these issues weren’t enough, a winery considering a private line needs to carve out enough room to install it; not easy for most Virginia establishments strapped for cellar space. Contracting with a reliable professional is a sound business decision.

With two years operating experience, the Olsens know the physical and emotional demands of the business are high. “I need a full day off after each job,” states Oley. “My day starts at 5:30 AM and often I am not home till seven at night or later. That’s hours of set up, production and driving time,” he emphasizes.

Experience has also shown the Oslens the importance of a winery being prepared for a bottling. “We are constantly refining our check list for customers. They must carefully prepare for our arrival, or time and money is wasted,” states Judy. “And they need to purchase supplies from qualified vendors. One thing we’ve seen in the recent past is a decline in the quality of glass coming out of Mexico. Because the demand for wine bottles is high across the country, quality has slipped. We know the top producers and encouraged clients to purchase glass from them,” she says.

One interesting insight is their perception that natural cork still reigns in the Old Dominion. But screw caps are gaining adherents. “Virginia produces boutique wines. I think many owners want to convey that quality message through cork sealed bottles,” says Judy. For now, Blue Moon has no plan to retro fit their line to handle screw caps.

Conversely, Landwirt Mobile and Virginia Wine Bottling have rigs that handle both cork and screw cap closures. “Over thirty per cent of our clients are now using some screw caps and I see the number growing,” states Landwirth. Over the next decade, the marketplace will likely decide whether the cork or cap prevails.

In addition to the mechanical skills necessary in managing an operating a line, another important attribute for a pro-bottler is a calm demeanor. “Bottling is a stressful event for a winemaker. It’s the culmination of all their work and tension is high. But, problems are a given. When they occur, taking calm control of the situation is important. Oley has the gift of staying cool under fire. When he comes home he’s free to vent his frustration, and often does,” Judy says laughing.

When reflecting on the role of itinerant bottlers, one can appreciate more fully what they provide Virginia wine lovers. For if it’s true that wine is bottled poetry, might these pros be our poet laureates?  But of course.

Winery at La Grange

Published in the spring edition of the Piedmont Virginian.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES