Many wine drinkers put little thought into what happens before they pop the cork. That’s a shame because making wine is a complex, fascinating process that incorporates everything from agriculture to heavy machinery to design. We decided to dig a little deeper into the technical side of wine, beginning with bottling.
First we needed an expert.
For Sal Maiolatesi, winemaking is a family legacy. His great-grandfather, who immigrated from Italy, built winemaking equipment.
“[My father] said, ‘Let’s make a barrel of wine,'” recalls Sal. “I didn’t know what I was doing and neither did he. One barrel turned into three barrels turn into eight barrels. We were giving it away and people started to really like it.”
Eight years later, he opened Maiolatesi Wine Cellars in Olyphant, PA. In the first year, they made three dry wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay) and three sweet wines (Concord, Niagara and Vidal Blanc). All the grapes were grown in Pennsylvania, with the sweet varietals coming from Erie and the Vinifera from Southeastern PA. These days, they make 40 wines.
PA Wine Land Post: What’s the first step when you are bottling wine?
Sal Maiolatesi: We typically start bottling in February. First we finish the wines by putting them into a tank, and heat- and cold-stabilizing them. [This is a process in which wine is held alternately at warm and cold temperatures to remove unstable grape proteins and prevent the formation of tartrate crystals.]
We use a GAI automated bottler — it’s an Italian company — and attached to that is the automatic labeler and capsuler [the capsule is the protective sleeve on the neck of a wine bottle over the cork]. We can do 25 bottles per minute.
How do you make sure your wines stay stable once they get in the bottle?
We start off by sterilizing the bottling line with steam for about 20 minutes. We pre-filter the wines with what’s called a “sterile 40 pad.” From there, we go into a single open-end membrane filter cartridge. We filter the wine down to .405 microns [which is small enough to catch both yeast and bacteria]. Then the wine goes into the bottling line. The whole process is automated.
The bottles are all new. They come from the factory and when they are made the glass is so hot that they are technically sterile. They go right from the box into the bottling line.
How do you decide which bottles to use?
We have certain bottles for specific types of wine. Chardonnay is going to go into a Burgundy bottle. Our dry reds go into a Bordeaux bottle [famous for its distinctive shoulders]. And then our sweet wines, they vary. Typically most of them are in clear Bordeaux bottles. Some of them get into a “California Hock,” which is not quite a full “Stretch Hock” [think of the slender bottles used for Germanic wines like Riesling]. We do most of our semi-sweets and some of our dry whites in those as well — our Viognier and our Riesling go into that style.
Is there a reason you tend to stick with convention when it comes to your bottles?
It’s what people expect. These wines have been put into these bottles for years. Especially with dry wines, there is a tradition to what kind of bottle they go in.
Can we talk a little about closures. How do you decide what to use?
We use synthetic corks for everything. I’m not really too concerned about longevity. Some of the dryer wines will sit around for a bit, but the sweet wines are usually made and sold within a year or two. We base it on aesthetics and ease of customer use.
From a practical standpoint, we don’t use natural cork because we don’t want to lay down bottles. We keep everything upright and we don’t need to worry about the cork drying out — with natural [corks] you have to keep them laying down, or wineries put them upside down in the case after they bottle.
So tell me more about how the wine actually goes into the bottle.
It’s called a “monoblock,” so it all happens in one machine. Basically, the bottle is purged with nitrogen, then filled. Then it is leveled with a “leveler.” We overfill every bottle, and it extracts the exact amount, so you have 750 ml.
From there, the bottle goes under the corker where it’s corked using a vacuum — the vacuum makes sure that the machine doesn’t pressurize the bottle as the cork goes in.
Then the bottle goes down the conveyor belt to where it gets the capsule and the label. The monoblock is filling and corking, and then the capsuling and labeling is a separate machine.
What are the things that can go wrong on a bottling line?
The most difficult part is the labeling. Some of those problems can be self-created — if the wine is a little bit too cold and the winery is a little too humid, you’ll get condensation and the labels don’t want to stick. That’s my fault if we don’t get the wine back up to room temperature after cold-stabilizing and we bottle it too quickly.
How many days per year are you bottling?
We make 40 wines, so probably only about 45 days. If we can’t bottle something in one day, we will carry over into the second day. We typically like to bottle all of a particular wine at one time. We figure out how much wine we need for the year based on what we’ve sold the previous years, and then we’ll just make that amount.