Checking out the bottling truck
A friend and I recently visited a local vineyard that we quite like, and while there, we learned that the bottling truck would arrive a few days later. I’ve been intrigued by these trucks since I first landed in the South of France, and had been hoping for an opportunity to photograph one in action.
Annabelle, our host, was very welcoming of the idea, giving me a big smile and opening her arms to say that I would be welcome to watch, learn and take a few photographs.
Gasp! You mean the wines aren’t tenderly bottled by hand at each winery?
Some wineries still do their own bottling, but it’s an expensive, time-consuming and error-prone process. Here’s a list of the necessary steps: clean and dry the bottles, fill with wine, cork and cap, add labels, place bottles in cartons. Each step requires its own machine and/or operator. The equipment is precise, it needs to be maintained, and it can break down during bottling. There is also the complication that different wine varietals require different bottles, along with their own unique labels. If someone inexperienced is operating the machine for corking the wine or for placing the labels, things can go wrong, which means that while the wine inside might be perfectly fine, the bottle doesn’t look good enough to sell, so it’s set aside, and if that happens too often, there’s a problem with profits. Of course, the entire process must be done under strict hygiene restrictions. It all adds up to a nightmare of organization that many vintners are happy to hand off to the experts.
At some point in the 20th century, vintners began to truck their wines to a more centralized facility that would handle all of the steps of bottling and packaging for them, and eventually someone figured out a better solution: bring the bottling to the winery. The bottling truck was born, more formally known as mobile bottling. I tried to find the inventor of the mobile bottling truck, and the closest I came was the story of Harry Hakala in Lodi, California. His mother, who was from Germany, suggested that instead of bringing large containers of wine to a bottling facility, wouldn’t it be easier to bring the bottling machinery to each winery? Harry has been operating a mobile bottling truck business in central California since 1978.
The day arrives
On the morning of the appointed day, I stopped at the bakery to pick up a few lunch-time treats for the workers, and then drove over to one of our neighboring villages, Mailhac, a deceptively sleepy village with an intriguing history. I’ve heard people say that it is the oldest continuously-inhabited village in Europe; there certainly is evidence of human habitation dating to over 40,000 years ago. There are also signs of an encampment from roughly 5,000 years ago—around the time that stone dolmens were constructed across this region. And there’s a Bronze Age settlement dating to about 1,000 BC that is named the Oppidum du Cayla. Oppidum is a Latin word that means “town.”
In my fertile imagination, this rich history becomes part of the soil, the water, the air of the region. The plants that grow here, especially the long-lived olive trees and grape vines, soak that history up through their roots to impart a distinctive character to the flavors of the Midi. This is the reason that the foods and drinks from a particular region of the world generally taste better when consumed in the place that they come from: if you sit on a terrace in the South of France and sip a local wine, you are resting on the earth and breathing the air that nourished the grapevines that made the wine you are savoring. Makes sense, eh?
It was a clear, sunny morning when I drove into the village, passing the great medieval church and then tucking into a parking space. I heard the bottling truck before I saw it, a great cacophony of clanking wine bottles, whooshing air compressors, clattering conveyor belts, and running motors. I headed directly to the tasting room in search of Annabelle.
When she arrived and saw me, she shouted some hurried French that I understood not a word of, and ran off to the truck. I realized that she was checking to see if I would be welcome aboard. Moments later, she waved me up a flight of narrow steps, and I found myself in the midst of an extremely noisy but well-oiled machine. I was welcomed by the fellow in charge of the operation, David, who told me I was welcome to take all the photos I cared to.
While Annabelle and David had a discussion, I began making some photographs of what I saw; when she left, David turned to me and offered a taste of the wine they were bottling at the moment, Le Fil Rouge.
Domaine Pierre Fil
The winery I visited that day is Pierre Fil, well-known and greatly appreciated around this region. I didn’t see Pierre that day, but I’ve met him before, a man who is friendly and appreciative of the gifts of life here in the Midi, while also being a serious winemaker with a keen attention to detail. In order to bring the taste of the terroir to the bottle, and to people’s tables, a successful vintner has to balance the analytic skills of science and business with the soul of an artist.
Here’s a brief description from the Pierre Fil brochure:
For seven generations, the vineyard of the Domaine of Pierre Fil has been handed down from father to son. Nestled between the sea and the mountains, in Mailhac, in the Minervois, the climate and the soil are particular. Here, the vines grow on a sandstone terrace that must have been the bed of a nearby river, now diverted. Rolling pebbles air and drain the soil. The climate is Mediterranean, and the wind shapes the vintages. “We do not inherit the earth from our parents, but borrow it from our children.” Respectful of the heritage to be passed on to our descendants, we are certified with the “High Environmental Value” mark. In our wines, you will find a strong signature, original aromas and a delicate texture. Let yourself be tempted to discover these wines that resemble us. Enjoy your wine tasting.
And now, that truck
Step inside the truck with me and try to imagine all the sounds that assault your ears; you have to yell to be heard, and lip-reading is helpful.
In the relatively small and compact space of a cargo truck, all of the necessary machines hum along in unison in a wondrously detailed system that moves the bottles at high speed. The first step is washing, in which the bottles are raised high in an arc, then back down along a circular machine for drying. Next the bottles move along curving lines to be filled and then corked. Each bottle then receives its metal cap, which is tamped down with a sort of mallet, and then a tiny label is affixed on top. Next, the bottles twist and turn to receive labels on the front and the back. Near the end of the line, one fellow is making cardboard boxes, which are then taken by two more young men and filled with bottles, ready for sale. The process runs along an elongated horseshoe shape, with the beginning and the end of the process both happening at the back end of the truck.
To start, a fellow who stands above many pallets of new bottles operates a machine that grabs twelve bottles at once; he then he swings that rack up into the truck and onto the conveyor belt.
The bottles trundle down to the front end of the truck, where they move along a wondrously complicated series of circular processes that wash and dry the bottles. I kept thinking that this part of the process had to have been influenced by Rube Goldberg, with his fantastical and overly-complex processes to solve simple problems.
The newly-cleaned bottles are then filled with wine and corked, and the next steps are for the details. A metal cap is placed over each bottle, and then tamped down, which you can see in the photo below right. After that, a tiny label is applied over the metal cap, and the bottles move on to the step of receiving their front and back labels.
And back to the back of the truck, where all four employees are working. There is the fellow who began it all with his row of twelve bottles off the palette, and opposite him is a team of three. One is making the basic carton, while the other two take bottles from the conveyor belt and place them into those cartons. Each carton moves down the last conveyor belt, off the truck and onto a cart that is loaded with full cartons, ready for sale.
If all of this has made you thirsty to visit Pierre Fil, click here to see their web site.
Mailhac is hidden away and it will take some effort to get there. You can fly into the larger regional airport in Toulouse (two hours away), or one of the smaller, closer airports at Béziers, Montpellier or Carcassonne. It’s easy to rent a car from any of those airports, and then it will be a drive of between 45 minutes and two hours to arrive in tiny Mailhac. If you’d like to visit and want to hear more ideas of what to do in the area, do contact me!