“How would you like to help out with bottling next week?” the tasting room manager asked.
“That sounds great! I’d love to learn how the bottling process works!” I was practically jumping up and down with excitement.
She just smiled. Now I know what she was thinking: sucker.
The bottling line is made up of two machines connected by a conveyor belt. A new, fancy filling machine first fills the bottles with nitrogen, then fills them with wine. A sensor draws out excess wine and adds a little more nitrogen to the bottle. The bottles are then corked and spit out onto a short conveyor belt leading to the next machine, a slightly older labeling machine. The labeling machine consists of a capsule applicator, a label applicator, and a capsule sealer.
There are two jobs on the bottling line. Two jobs for humans, that is. One is to feed the empty bottles into the filling machine and bring the emptied boxes to the end of the line. The other is to pull the filled bottles off the end of the line, put them into cases, label the cases, seal the cases, and stack the cases on a pallet. One of these jobs is easier than the other. One must also keep an eye on the supply of corks in the corker, the capsules in the capsule applicator, and the pressure gauge on the nitrogen tank.
The other important job for humans in this process is to make sure nothing goes wrong on the bottling line. Things do go wrong, all of the time. Here are some of the things that can go wrong: empty bottle boxes that turn out to be empty of empty bottles; bottles with smaller neck diameters that burst or shatter when corked, slowing down the line and making a big, dangerous mess; capsules that fail to fire or that fire a few at a time; labels that fail to label or that go on all wrong; capsules that fail to seal; bottles that back up in the labeling machine and fall off the sides of the machine in a steady stream. This last problem is the worst, because it happens the most often. The winemaker, generally a calm and laid-back guy, swears in rapid-fire, staccato outbursts when something goes wrong, startling me more than the sound of shattering glass.
The winemaker has had a long, stressful week. Each day, he arrives at the winery at 6 am to steam-clean the bottling line. He stays until 7 pm when things go wrong, and things go wrong every day. He needs to bottle 2400 cases in four days: that means 600 cases (7200 bottles) need to be done each day. Each tank holds about 600 cases of wine, and each tank needs to be emptied each day. Problems slow the line down and mean more work later. Any error at this point could be catastrophic. About $400k worth of wine needs to be bottled in four days. By three people and two machines.
The cellar hand helps out with the bottling too. The winemaker and cellar hand work the line all morning, then I show up to relieve them at lunchtime and work through the afternoon. In the afternoon, the cellar hand drives the forklift around the cellar at irresponsible speeds, ferrying filled pallets over to the warehouse for storage. I’m worried that they’re going to take it easy on me since I am a woman. A weak-looking woman, too.
The winemaker explains how the process works, then he goes to lunch. I start by putting the empty bottles onto the line, one at a time. The cellar hand just smirks at me. When the winemaker gets back from lunch, he tells me that I need to put all 12 bottles on the line at once. Otherwise we’ll be here all night. After an hour of working at the start of the line, the winemaker suggests we switch. I go to the end of the line.
At first I am keeping up. “I can do this!” I think. The winemaker senses my confidence and settles in to his regular speed. Uh oh. I am working as fast as I can, and I still can’t keep up. I get to the critical point: I’ve got about four cases worth of bottles on the end of the line, and more keep coming in. Grab box, label box, fill with 12 bottles, seal box, put box on pallet: I can’t do all of the steps fast enough. The winemaker runs to the end of the line and starts filling cases next to me until we’re back at a manageable point.
“Slowing down a little bit, eh?” he asks.
The afternoon of the second day, after an especially loud outburst of rapid-fire fucks, shits, and goddamnits, the bottling area is suddenly filled with people. The owner is leading an unannounced tour through the area. We couldn’t hear them approach over the sound of clinking glass, shooting capsules, and cursing. We can’t hear what they’re saying as they line up and stare at us while we work. One woman is taking pictures. I look over at the winemaker and start giggling. He’s wearing an Obama t-shirt. I’m covered with bruises, sweating, in a ratty old Pixies t-shirt, workout pants with untied drawstrings (dangerous!), florescent earplugs, sailing gloves to keep the first day’s blisters from growing larger. We’d just recovered from an especially bad mess in the labeling machine and are working at full speed. I feel like an animal in a zoo. Then I catch one guy’s eye in the crowd and I see a look of admiration there and I suddenly feel like a total badass. I may be an animal in a zoo, but I’m a badass animal.
I’m scraping messed up labels off bottles at the end of the second day. A few hours before, I had reached that point of exhaustion, where you know you’ve used up your regular energy reserves and have to dig deep for more. I don’t ever work this hard.
“Want a beer?” the winemaker asked.
We’re not supposed to drink while working, but I don’t just want a beer, I need a beer. I never drink PBR, but right then it tasted better than the finest craft brew. Two days in a row of bottling was the hardest I’d ever worked in my life. It was also fun. A lot of fun.
On the last day of bottling, I’m working the tasting room and another coworker is in the cellar. Everything is going fine in the early afternoon and they think they’ll finish early. But by four, so many things have gone wrong that an early finish is out of the question. I wrap up in the tasting room, clean up, and go down to the cellar to see if they need extra help. I scrape labels off messed up bottles until 7:30. I can’t get enough.