I left off in the last post talking about the process of “racking” a wine in preparation for bottling. I also detailed some chemistry information about wine that winemaking types need to think about - not only the chemistry before the wine is bottled, but also its make-up throughout its development.
By the time this is posted on Wednesday I will have cases and cases full of wine. And I promise in two weeks time you will see a photo essay of the bottling process. I am just not that tech-savvy to propose posting this in real time.
Today, we are bottling our Tocai. It is a small, limited production dry, white wine from 125 year-old vines. We'll make just about 120 cases from the 2008 vintage. This Tocai is the North East Italian variety and brings all the best wild flower and citrus blossom to the nose and floral herbaceousness that is characteristic of the wines from the Friuli region. We will also be bottling our Merlot based blend, Firebelle, from the 2007 vintage.
On Monday morning at 7:00 a.m. my glass (i.e. empty bottles) arrived. Stacked on pallets in our branded boxes, 84 empty cases to a pallet. Since last week, deliveries of labels, corks and capsules have been arriving as well. My small cellar space has been overrun with packaging. Like any packaged goods brand manager, vendors were kept in touch with over the year – since the prior bottling; kinks were worked out and changes were made. The most consistent change each year is to our labels. The most obvious change is the vintage date and the current wine's alcohol level. And if the wine is composed of a different blend (e.g. Firebelle - Merlot, Cabernet and Malbec), the grape variety information and percentages have been updated. For our Tocai, we decided to add an image to the label to memorialize the history behind the vines. So, some wholesale changes were made and proofs were scrutinized and press checks were attended.
With regards to corks, when buying, we set up trials with our vendor. These trials consist of smelling corks from different bales (i.e. lots) in order to check for quality – or more importantly, TCA (i.e. the chemical name for a natural fungus that is present in wood based products and we know commonly as “cork taint”). A cork trial is a great aromatic tester because TCA comes in varying levels of impact. With low alcohol wines, if TCA is present, the impact is more profound. With higher alcohol wines, e.g. Cabernets, there is a chance, even if there are minute traces of TCA (registered in parts per trillion) in the cork, it will not be discernable in the wine. TCA is mainly recognizable as wet cardboard or wet dog, or, in lesser instances, as muted fruit profile or heightened menthol character. So, for the trial the corks are soaked in low alcohol, boxed white wine (Franzia, I believe) over night. Each cork is in its own individual vile of said wine and poured into wine glasses upon arrival. We'll smell ten or more corks from each bale and test five to ten bales in one session. We'll have a control sample and the goal is to smell the glasses of wine and look for the bales that produce the least amount of impact in the wine's aromatic character.
Covering the corks are the capsules. Last year we changed our capsule provider, for quality and price reasons, and we were able to secure a higher quality for a better price. Unfortunately, last year, tin prices sky-rocketed, and if you add in the fact that we purchased our capsules from a French producer while the Euro to dollar conversion was peaking in the 1.50's, it was an expensive accoutrement. We also buy our glass from France and our corks from Portugal, thus the currency conversion rates last year increased our entire packaging costs for our 2006 wines. [The conversion rates also impacted our French Oak barrel purchasing. Barrels that were $500-$600 a piece in 2003 and 2004 are now hovering around the $1,000 mark.]
For example, the rough costs for packaging a single bottle of wine are as follows:
Case Box: $0.15
On top of this, you need to factor in your grape costs, your harvest costs, your vinification costs (i.e. fermentation yeasts and nutrients), your barrel costs, your time, labor, chemistry analysis, bottling prep, and the act of bottling itself. [You will see in the next post, we use a mobile bottling service which charges around $0.30 per bottle.]
Overall, the cost of producing a bottle of wine, for us (and this differs based on the choices each winery makes), is roughly, give or take a dollar, $10 per bottle. That does not include the overhead (turning the lights on in the morning, etc.) and the marketing and sales expenses associated with the wine). So, when it comes down to it, our wine is fairly expensive to produce – almost 3x the price of the average bottle of wine purchased in America. However, in a Napa Valley comparison, on a QPR basis, our wines tend to be in the top tier of value wines even at $50-$60 per bottle. I shutter sometimes when I think about this, because when I was a consumer of wine, not in the business of producing wine, I used to think of buying wine at this price point as a luxury. Now it is value based on the wines I drink these days. Sorry for the aside.
So, wish me luck today and the next couple of bottling days over the course of the next week, because this is the last chance to have any control of your wine's development. I am looking forward to the next post, full of pictures to elaborate on the process. Until then, drink well, the luxurious kind or not.
Larkmead Vineyards in Napa Valley. Dan has an MBA from New York University and worked as an Ad Exec in New York for several years, before switching it up and trading his suit for a move out west