While you patiently wait for your wine to age, it is time to decide how you’re going to get it into the bottle. There are many ways to accomplish this, and it may be a daunting task trying to figure out what is the best for you. Let’s review the different tools out there to help you bottle your precious wine and help you build your very own bottling line.
The most important piece of the bottling puzzle is, well, the bottle! At this point you have a decision to make: Buy or recycle. While new bottles are available at any local home winemaking store or online, they come at a price. Used bottles can often be sourced by calling a local winery, wine bar, or restaurant, and asking them to save their empties for you (possibly in exchange for wine for their troubles). Craigslist is also an option, as well as saving your own wine bottles and reusing them year after year. Once you have your recycled bottles home it is time to take a look into each bottle in a well-lit room and look for any black mold or other stubborn deposits. Black mold and crusty bottle deposits can be difficult to remove and will have an unpleasant effect on your final product. Unless you are 100% confident in your ability to remove these growths, just pitch the bottle or use it for one of those groovy color drip candles. The fun part about recycling bottles is removing the labels (that was a joke, are you laughing?). I soak my bottles in Powdered Brewery Wash (PBW) and hot water for 30–60 minutes. Sometimes the labels will float off by themselves. Some don’t, and at this point I start scraping with a paint scraper (or you can buy the LabelNator, which has a curved blade and solid handle, made specifically for this purpose) and then remove any stubborn glue with a ball of steel wool. A good scrub with a bottle brush on the inside and a quick scrub over the whole bottle with a sponge on the outside and we can then rinse it out with a faucet-mounted high-pressure bottle sprayer and give it a rinse on the outside. Voila! Once you think you are finished, take a final look inside for nasties. If you give it the “all clear,” hang it to dry. Once they are sufficiently dry, put them in a box and tape it shut and store until bottling day. The tape helps to keep out bugs and dust.
A Bottle Tree is a great addition to any size winery. It’s an effective way to dry bottles so you don’t have several bottles leaning precariously upside down in an attempt to dry them. They are inexpensive and as your winery grows, additions to the existing bottle tree can be purchased to be able to hold more bottles.
Another way to dry your bottles is the FastRack. Compact, and stackable, each tray has 12 spaces to securely accommodate the bottle, while avoiding contact with the inside; which maintains sanitary conditions in the bottle. Multiple racks can be stacked saving space and reducing its footprint in the winery, and the racks are easily stored when not in use. Each kit contains two 12-bottle racks and a drip tray.
Once you start making and drinking your own wine, you’ll start to de-label more and more of your own bottles instead of commercial ones; which makes things a lot easier. Another tip is to soak, clean, and remove labels in the winter time, it’s cold, dark, and frightening out there, might as well clean bottles in the cellar while you wait for spring to come.
On bottling day you will remove your clean bottles from storage and all they will need is a flush of sanitizer before being filled with wine. Depending on the volume of wine to be bottled, a spray bottle can be used to spray sanitizer in each bottle, which is allowed to dry until it’s ready to be filled.
Another option is the Vinator Bottle Rinser. Simply fill the reservoir with your favorite no-rinse sanitizer and prime the pump by pushing down on it with a bottle until it squirts out and coats your bottle with sanitizer. Repeat as necessary to sanitize your bottles. The bottles are then allowed to drip dry.
A handful of manufacturers make a combo Bottle Washer/Sanitizer. Models are available from All in One Wine Pump, FastBrewing, and The Vintage Shop. These units efficiently conquer the jobs of bottle washing and sanitizing by automating the tasks. The All in One High Pressure Bottle Washer/Sanitizer works with one bottle at a time. It comes with the necessary tubing, a pump, and a bottle sprayer that attaches to a 5-gallon (19-L) bucket that you provide. The FastRack FastWasher uses a pump and works in tandem with their FastRack12 in your sink to clean or sanitize twelve wine bottles at a time. The Vintage Shop Bottle Washer also works in a sink and attaches to a faucet to clean or sanitize twelve wine bottles at a time or can be used with a pump (that you provide).
Another option for when there are a lot of bottles to sanitize is the 12-bottle washer/sanitizer (pictured to the left) I built to handle the task of sanitizing up to 400 bottles for a typical bottling day (an outline of the build is available at https://winemakermag.com/item/469/asinline). This bottle washer is perfect for a nice flow to a long day of bottling. I use a sulfite/citric acid mix to sanitize my bottles and I typically do not rinse the bottles out before filling. If an after-rinse sounds like something you’d like to do, another 12-bottle washer can be built to rinse your bottles with fresh water just prior to filling.
Available to the home winemaker are a number of ways to get your wine from carboy to bottle. These bottle fillers I will discuss are easy to work with, even by yourself. The flow of wine can be stopped and started at will allowing you to cork and organize bottles as needed.
The Bottling Wand is inexpensive, easy to use and sanitize, and perfect for the winemaker on a budget bottling 1–10 gallons (4–38 L) of wine. It connects to your siphon hose and comes with one of two styles of tips. In one style, the tip is spring loaded, which means it will stop between fillings. This is convenient for when you need to stop and cork a few bottles before filling again. The other style lacks the spring, which makes it a bit easier during the filling (you don’t need to push down to open it), but it means you need to hang it up to stop the flow if you are switching to corking. I personally use one of the spring-loaded types in my home winery for filling 375 mL bottles of delicious small-batch fruit wines when larger bottle fillers may be overkill.
A Three-Spout Gravity Filler is a major step up from the bottling wand. With this particular bottle filler, you can fill three bottles simultaneously. I prefer to stagger them so I’m quickly handing my corker one at a time rather than three at a time. This makes for an even flow to the bottling operation. This filler works by gravity, which means the wine to be bottled will have to be higher than the bottle filler. A simple but sturdy stand can be built to elevate the carboys to a level that a siphon is possible. A safer method for your back and your wine would be pumping the wine up to an elevated vessel. This helps avoid lifting heavy carboys. Once a siphon is started, the filler’s reservoir starts to fill with wine. In the reservoir is a floating mechanism that controls the fill-level. When the reservoir gets to a certain volume, the float rises and cuts off the flow until there is room for more wine to flow into the reservoir. The spouts are then primed and the filling can begin. As the bottles are filled the reservoir is constantly being refilled by the siphon action from the donor carboy until it is empty. These fillers also stop filling the bottle once it is full.
Buon Vino has a small family of efficient fillers. The Super Auto-Filler uses gravity to fill your bottles, and will stop the flow once the bottle has reached the preset fill level; which is set by the user. The Electric Fill Jet comes in a tabletop version and a floor model. Both have self-priming pumps and are capable of filling a single bottle in 17 seconds. Like the Auto-Filler, the filling operation stops (the pump deactivates) when the bottle is full to prevent over-filling.
The All in One Wine Pump (pictured at left) not only enables you to rack and degas your wine, it is also a bottle-filler. The All in One runs on a custom-made, oil-free pump — meaning it is clean and odor-free. The kit contains everything you need for racking and bottling, with more attachments available for other tasks in the home winery. Its design ensures consistent fill levels (which are easily adjustable) with virtually any bottle style in as little as 15 seconds. Otherwise, an inline vacuum control allows you to control the fill-speed. This helps to reduce foaming if there is a significant amount of residual carbon dioxide in the wine, or for first-time users getting used to the unit.
The Enolmatic Wine Bottle Filler is also a vacuum pump operating on a continuous duty cycle with a fast and adjustable fill rate; capable of pulling wine from a vessel up to 13 feet (4 m) below the filler along with being able to fill a bottle in just seven seconds. Fill levels are adjustable and once a bottle is full, the flow stops, giving you the same set level each and every time. Along with being easy to clean, you can install an in-line filter to be able to polish your wine right before it goes into the bottle. This bottle filler can utilize more than one filler head to be able to fill more bottles simultaneously. Though it bears a higher price tag, it will stand up to years of service and would be at home in the large-scale home winery or small commercial winery.
With some ingenuity you can use a vacuum pump to fill your bottles too. In my article “Moving Wine and Using Pumps” (April-May 2017) I describe how to build a vacuum racking set-up. For this bottling rig we use the pump and the over-flow container to prevent wine from getting into the pump. We then use a #2 bung with two predrilled holes; one for a 90-degree barbed elbow and the other a barbed “T.” Connect food-grade tubing to the elbow; the other end is then put into the wine to be bottled. Connect another hose to the “T” and then to the overflow container. The vacuum pump is turned on and the bung is placed in the mouth of the bottle (apply slight pressure to achieve an airtight seal.). Place your thumb over the open part of the “T” and the flow will start. Once your fill level is reached, simply remove your thumb and the flow will stop.
For small-scale winemakers, the double level hand-held corker may be a good choice for you. Just insert a cork, mount the corker over the bottle, and push the levers downward to drive the cork home. The cork depth can also be adjusted on this unit. When using this corker there is a chance the cork driver will leave a circular indent in the top of the cork. Though this has no effect on the integrity of the cork, it may be visually displeasing to some folks. This is home winemaking and there are many facets of making wine at home that have their certain quirks; this is just one of them. Besides, this indent is typically covered up with a shrink capsule anyway. Though it works with most corks, #9 corks can be difficult to insert with this corker and it is not recommended for use with synthetic corks.
Winemakers with higher output volume and deeper pockets need look no further than the Portuguese or Italian floor corkers (the Italian corker also has a tabletop version). To operate, you insert a cork into the compression area and place a bottle underneath on the bottle plate, which locks into place when the lever is pulled downward to insert the cork into the bottle. First off, the obvious difference between these two corkers is the price, with the Portuguese corker pictured on at the top of this article in front of a double lever hand-held corker) being on the low end of the spectrum. This does not mean the quality is lesser; it’s just made up of different parts. This is what I use in my home winery and I get great results consistently. Another difference you’ll see upon further inspection is the Portuguese corker has plastic jaws, which tend to break down faster over time compared to the Italian corker which has brass or stainless steel jaws. Both corkers have a nut on the cork driver to adjust the depth of insertion. The Italian corker has a longer lever; this gives you more leverage to make inserting the cork easier on the user. Unlike the Portuguese corker, some Italian corkers have an attachment for crown caps to be used for beer or Champagne bottles. These models can also accommodate Champagne corks. The Portuguese corker has a lower profile, which may make it harder on the back to use for prolonged periods of time. I fixed this by mounting it on a homemade riser. Both corkers perform great; it just comes down to how much you’d like to spend, the quality you seek, and if you also use crown caps and oversized corks.
Another important aspect of the home bottling line is inert gas. The use of nitrogen or argon at bottling can significantly reduce oxygen uptake as wine flows into the bottle. This will lessen bottle shock, and your pre-bottling sulfite addition will go further in protecting your wine. CO2 is not wise to use in this respect because if any is trapped in the bottle once it’s corked it may cause a slight carbonation or at the very least give your wine the perception of a higher acid level or a spritz sensation on the palate.
If you’ve chosen to use the 12-bottle washer/sanitizer, you can use the same bottle rack and connect another base to your inert gas setup. This is available at morewinemaking.com along with the bottle rack. They also sell a gas purging adapter that connects directly to the sparging base; the other end is connected to your gas tank flow meter. The adapter has an inline valve to be able to turn the gas on and off. Set your flow meter to your desired flow-level and use the valve as you purge bottles of oxygen. The bottle rack is a fast and efficient way to move bottles from the washer to the gas and then to the bottle filler. I recommend getting at least two bottle racks so the flow of the process goes smoother. While one rack is in use, another is being filled. If you bottle relatively small lots of wine, don’t worry too much about an inert gas system. Stable wine, adequately sulfited, will usually turn out fine even without an inert gas addition.
Shrink capsules give your wine a professional look. After all of that work put into making the wine, why not dress the bottle to the nines? Here you have three options for getting these colorful guys on your bottles; boiling water, a heat gun, or the heat tunnel.
Boiling water: It’s hot and steamy. Care is to be exercised when using this method. But it’s free and you most likely have the equipment needed to do it; a pot, water, and a stove.
Heat gun: Safer than boiling water, but may take more time than you want to spend applying the caps. Sometimes it is a little tricky to avoid wrinkling one side while you are aiming the gun at the other.
Heat tunnel: Safer than boiling water, quicker than a heat gun, and the shrink cap has a professional look. But, it is far more expensive than the alternatives.
Right about now you’re saying to yourself; he forgot about corks! The topic of corks is a whole other article in and of itself, one that has been covered many times over the years in WineMaker. See Alison Crowe’s take on the corking options here: https://winemakermag.com/1558-corking-options-wine-wizard.
Putting it All Together
In winemaking, there are five different answers for every question, so why wouldn’t there be different approaches to each process? A winemaker who harvests grapes from an acre will have different needs from one making occasional 5-gallon (19-L)wine kits.
In my own winery, I transform my wine cellar into the Poni bottling line. I use folding tables for easy setup and tear down. I typically bottle 300–500 bottles at a time. I use the 12-bottle washer and nitrogen on a folding table. On another folding table are a carboy riser I built and my two-spout gravity filler. The filled bottles are then passed to my longtime corker who uses the Portuguese floor corker to do the job. Then a shrink capsule is placed on the bottle, which is dipped into boiling water to shrink the cap. As for labels, I do that later because after the bottles are full and shrink capped, it’s time to clean up and celebrate another bottling day!
While my bottling line may be too much for some and not enough for others, I am pointing out there is a method for everyone no matter your home winery size. And, fortunately, you have lots of options.