Bottling Looms

Perhaps the number one stress for a winemaker on a yearly basis stems from getting his or her wine safely into a bottle.  On the surface it seems like such an easy and routine task.  In reality it involves a lot of preparation, hair-pulling, and moolah.  For small wineries who put “all their eggs into one basket” so to speak, there is no room for error.  Every little spill or bottle gone bad is greatly magnified.

Thankfully, there are people who specialize in this field.  Mobile bottling lines are a very useful tool for small craft wineries like ours.  It does not make fiscal sense for us to purchase a bottling line when the mobile unit can set up and bottle our entire portfolio in one day.   Unfortunately, the mobile line does not alleviate the vast amount of prep work and the high cost of raw materials.  I’m currently working through an extensive pre-bottling checklist which includes: final blending of wines, protein and cold stability tests, VQA lab and panel testing, coarse and sterile filtration, ordering bottles and corks, floor plan logistics, and shamelessly enlisting family members to help me out on bottling day.  Our labeling and waxing is done by hand at a later date, so that removes two finicky variables from the marathon undertaking.  The fewer things that can go wrong the better!

The bulk of my worries come long before bottling day and involve decisions like the type of closure to choose and the extent of filtration to employ.  The screw cap closure is becoming more and more common these days for good reason.  It’s much cheaper and it provides the perfect seal.  I thought long and hard about going to a screw cap for this season’s wines, but in the end I’ve opted to remain faithful to good old cork.  Call me old fashioned, but it just feels like the right closure for our wines.   The potential savings in price by using screw caps is substantial (high grade cork is 70 cents per bottle, while a screw cap  comes in around 18 cents per bottle),  but the traditional visual and tactile appeal of natural cork still resonates with me.  I’m also not convinced that screw caps provide the best mechanism for properly aging my wines.

I’ve talked to a number of our customers about this decision and they are overwhelmingly in favour of cork closures in their premium wines.  There is still the perception, albeit unwarranted, that screw caps represent lower quality wine.  One only has to look at the increasing number of high-end wines using screw caps to know this is not the case.  Aside from cost, a second significant drawback to cork is the inevitable problem of “corked” wines caused by the cork taint chemical TCA.  Encouragingly, new technologies and sterilization procedures have gone a long way in reducing the number of “corked” bottles to a manageable level (under 3%).  Higher grade corks generally have fewer nooks and crannies for TCA to hide, so we’ve always spent a bit more money for the added security they bring.  We’ve been lucky with TCA to this point, but I would encourage anyone who ends up with a “corked” bottle to return it in exchange for a new one.

I’ll probably re-visit this closure debate every year around this time so, as always, I reserve the right to change my mind in the future!

On April 6th we’re scheduled to bottle our 2008 reds (Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir), 2010 whites and 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine.  The 2008 Shiraz and 2009 Cab Sauv Icewine are first time entries into our portfolio that I’m very excited to have you try.  I plan to release these wines early in the summer.


March 4th, 2011 is a day that will forever live in Five Rows lore.  It is the day our roadside sign was stolen.  We put it out in the morning and it was gone at the end of the day.  That hand-painted little red sign has probably helped sell more wines than I have.  I hate to see it go.

But this day, the day my sister Catherine turned 30,  had an interesting and unforseen twist in store.  Later on that evening at the Cuvee 2011 Gala, an annual competition celebrating the best in Ontario wines, our name was called in two categories: 2nd place for Best Sauvignon Blanc and 1st place for Best Pinot Gris.   We were surprised and thrilled to be recognized at such a prestigious event.  As longtime Niagara grape growers, Cuvee has always held a special place in our heart.  In past years when our friends at Creekside won awards for wines featuring our grapes, it always felt neat to know we played a small role.  To win this year with wines that I crafted from our own fruit is a completely different feeling that I’m frankly having a hard time getting my head around.

As a rookie winemaker, I’m always nervous having my wines subjectively judged by others.  I make wines that appeal to my palate, but worry they may not always appeal to yours.  The fact that Cuvee winners are judged by my winemaking peers gives me an uplifting feeling of validation and acceptance.  So many days as a winemaker are spent banging your head off a barrel repeatedly in frustration, that its nice to have a night where your head can swell for an altogether different reason.  Don’t worry, my pruning tuque still fit this morning (thankfully it stretches).  In all seriousness, I don’t see this award as a pat on the back, but as more of a kick in the ass to keep working hard and striving to get better.

In the days leading up to the Gala I read a couple of reviews from Michael Pinkus and John Szabo that gave me an inkling our wines might have shown well.  Both writers felt our 2009 Sauvignon Blanc merited inclusion in their personal Top 5 lists from a pre-Cuvee media tasting.  These reviews meant a lot to me, but I still didn’t hold out much hope of bringing home any hardware in a room filled with award-winning juggernauts.

Surprise, surprise.

PS: The irony of losing a sign on the day you win some big wine awards is that people still manage to find you the next day.