People Power and Bottling Machines
February 24th 2011, by Gavin
In my list of New Year’s Resolutions for 2011, there’s no mention of switching from corks to Stelvin screwcaps for white and rosé, and changing our whole bottling process. There’s just a brief squiggle in the margin of ‘New Year Goals’, saying ‘check with customers about closures.’
Perhaps we should ‘check with customers’ more often because a month after asking, we’d used different bottles, different closures, revised back labels and a different bottling machine for over 130,000 bottles. Later in this post I’ll cover the bottling but here’s a reminder of how our customers made the call to change.
Although I’m a big fan of Twitter, and have a rather feeble Facebook Page, we wanted some swift, one-to-one feedback, without too much interference from either lobby. So on 14 January, with the help of a nifty online survey program called Wufoo, we emailed our customers (we use Campaign Monitor) with the question ‘what closures should we use to bottle our wines?’
As a guide, I wrote an accompanying article called 10 Questions about Corks v Screwcaps and within a week, over 1150 kindly completed the online survey. More than 700 people added a comment, which was staggering, given that most of the UK wine trade and press think the subject a bit passé (me included, in all honesty, before I understood that customers have such strong views).
This was the result, which I’ve edited from the Survey Results post with my self-serving Pacman effect to highlight the conclusion we came to:
With almost two thirds voting for screwcap for white, plus 19% ‘Don’t Mind’, 84% is a persuasive majority. Only 12.4% expressed a preference for cork for our rosé, our top selling wine in the summer (i.e. we’d be sealing it with a closure that only 1 in 8 wanted).
It’s a different story for Bordeaux red with 77% voting for cork or ‘don’t mind’. 23% is still a sizeable vote for screwcap for this, the most traditional of wine regions, but it should be remembered that we’re from the cheap seats, not the royal circle.
As soon as the votes came flooding in (we’d expected a few hundred, not a response rate for completing a survey of 20%), it was pretty clear which way things were heading, so we got to work. We do have our own bottling machine for corks, but we seldom use it now as it is far less efficient than the state-of-the-art kit that we can hire in.
We’d tested Stelvin before with our 2002 and 2006 vintages, so we did have some experience, but sought more up-to-date assistance ‘online’ and from local vineyard owners such as Nicola Alison of Chateau du Seuil and Martin Krajewski of Chateau de Sours (we Brits all inherited unpronounceable domain names). I exchanged tweets with @camelvalleybob in Cornwall and learned a great deal from a chance meeting with the experienced Karine Herrewyn of Amcor, which owns the Stelvin brand.
The urgency was that we didn’t want to leave the bottling of white and rosé too late, or we’d lose the freshness and vivacity of the wine. So, four weeks to the day from that email, an enormous machine from Thierry Bergeon, reputedly the best outfit in Bordeaux for bottling with screwcaps onsite, arrived on the forecourt outside the winery here. Bottles – which are different too, but still our favoured ‘antique green’ colour – had already arrived from a new supplier, called Saverglass. As had the Bauduc embossed Stelvin+ screwcaps, plus boxes, revised labels, and so on.
A few facts
1. If you export and sell in France, you need two types of screwcap: one for export (plain) and another with a small, coloured Customs disc on the side bearing a profile of Marianne, a French national symbol, which shows that duty has been paid in France. At least with our Stelvins, this disc is on the side, whereas with our normal cork capsules, it’s on the end, obliterating our smart Château logo.
2. Most smaller Châteaux in Bordeaux use outside contractors for bottling onsite, allowing them to put ‘Chateau bottled’ (‘Mis en bouteille au Château’) on the label. ‘Mis en bouteille à la propriété’ usually means that the wine was made at a Co-op, even if the label says Château X or Domaine Y.
3. There are very few high-spec machines like this in Bordeaux, which can bottle with screwcap, as the French and several other markets have not accepted them like the UK.
5. The €800,000 machine below bottles 5000 bottles an hour. Some are labeled, but by no means all as we have several restaurant customers with different labels, and don’t have the space to store 10,000 made-up cases. As with most Châteaux, we store most of the wine in metal box pallets containing 600+ bottles (50 cases), to be labeled and boxed later.
7. With corks, a common corner-cutting mistake is not to leave the bottles upright on a conveyor for long enough. If the cork doesn’t expand into the neck of the bottle properly, the wine can seep down the side of the cork once laid down. The conveyor is just one of the details that differentiate screwcap and cork machines.
Below is a selection of photographs from a busy week, which I’ll also put up on our Facebook Page.