By Amie Nemec
While I have previously volunteered to help my winemaker and grape grower friends with things such as bottling wine, pruning vines and harvesting grapes, today is the first day I am volunteering with the focus on learning to actually become a winemaker.
Mike Batek and his wife Denise are owners of Hye Meadow Winery which I have visited on many occasions since they opened in the Texas Hill Country in 2013. I was recently visiting the winery with a couple who I was taking on a VIP Wine Tour, and I told Mike that I just sold my wine shop so I could focus on learning to make wine. Mike laughed out loud. I mean, not in a rude way, but truly, he laughed at me. He asked why in the world I would want to go down this rabbit hole and work so hard. As a friend, he wasn’t making fun of me or trying to change my mind. He was being honest. The business of winemaking is often viewed as something glamorous and romantic. It must be so great to gaze over rows of grapevines every day and drink good wine without a care in the world. The reality is, winemaking is mostly cleaning, getting dirty, and cleaning more. The end result is gratifying, a delicious wine in the bottle. And that’s something to be proud of. The reality is, winemaking is a lot of sweat and monotony to get the finished wine into the bottle and onto your dining table.
Ultimately, Mike offered me the opportunity to come help at Hye Meadow periodically throughout the 2021 harvest season which begins in July each year. Today I showed up at the winery at 8 a.m. to help with bottling. Wines that are in barrels and tanks need to be bottled. These finished pallets of wine cases are moved into cold storage so the tanks and barrels can be cleaned and prepared for the incoming grapes which are due to arrive in about two weeks.
Mike grew up in South Texas in Corpus Christi. He’s just a few years older than me and went to my rival high school. He fell in love with wine at an early age which probably had little to do with any chateau in France and more to do with what he could get his hands on to get his drink on! Fast forward, and he and his wife found themselves at a crossroads needing to decide what their next career paths would be. They found a wonderful piece of raw acreage in Hye, Texas and decided on starting a winery. Mike enrolled in the viticulture program through Texas Tech University to learn about grape growing. At the same time, he was able to make industry contacts and gain experience alongside winemakers in the area. Through family and friends eager to support their new adventure, the couple was able to make all of the pieces fall into place so that Hye Meadow Winery could become a reality. The first vintage of wine was processed in 2010 and the tasting room was open and selling wine three years later.
Today, Hye Meadow has expanded from their initial intimate tasting room to include a well-equipped winery with case storage, an enclosed event center, and added covered outdoor seating. The space is welcoming and overlooks a gorgeous oak grove in the back of the property.
As I arrived to my volunteer job this morning at 8 a.m., I was greeted by Mike, as well as three employees who were working to move pallets of empty bottles and laying out hoses to prepare for the day’s bottling. We were slated to handle about 300 cases of Tempranillo and 200 of Montepulciano. Luckily, Mike purchased an automated bottling line from a large local winery earlier this year. This was his third bottling session since the purchase and it’s easy to see that the more an automated line like this is used, the smoother it runs. We timed the process of bottling a pallet which is 56 cases. Sometimes it takes 45 minutes or more. We did several runs around 35 minutes and one super-fast run at 26 minutes.
Two volunteers drove an hour and a half from north of Austin to help and arrived close to 9:00 a.m. and Denise was shortly after. Then a friend of hers from college arrived, and a friend hers about an hour after that. All told, by 10 a.m. we had 10 able bodies working our assembly line. I’ll say, the process could be done with four to five people, but its tiring work and without extra hands, there’s added time to the processes.
You should know, bottling is a lot of repetitive motion. It’s easy to want to stay in one’s ‘job’ or position in the assembly line because you get comfortable with what you are doing. But it’s uncomfortable for your body to do those same movements thousands of times. It can be beneficial to move into different jobs during the day to change up the muscles that are being worked.
The pallet of cases of empty wine bottles are maneuvered to be close to the start of the bottling line. Someone needs to grab a case, flip it upside down, and dump the bottles onto the platform. One person should be a sort of ‘floater’ to keep surfaces clean, move things out of the way, stop the line if there’s an issue, and refill the corks in the reservoir. The empty bottles are pushed onto the conveyor belt and moved into the unit where nitrogen gas is puffed into the bottles to make sure each bottle is free of dust and to displace oxygen. Then the bottles keep moving onto a round track that fills each to a pre-set amount for the 750 ml bottles. The next spout is important. It will remove a bit of wine to get the volume to an equal fill-level in each bottle and give another dose of nitrogen to help ensure there is no oxygen present. Next, the cork is compressed into the bottle, and it moves to the end of the line. Here is where I was first stationed, moving the bottles off the line and onto a long folding table where two labeling machines are set up.
I have been charged with moving bottles off the line, onto the table, and distributing between the two labelers. Because of the shortages of many products around the world due to COVID-19, things like glass bottles and even paper are harder to get this harvest season. The labels for these bottles had to be printed on a thin clear plastic backing. It’s very flimsy and hard to handle in the labeling machines. So, in addition to moving filled bottles off the line, I also tried to keep the plastic sheet from getting coiled back onto itself in the label machine. It took some hand dexterity and twisting at the waist. I have quickly learned I’m a bit out of shape and my muscles are sore in my arms and back. But I’ll consider this working out and press on! Once a bottle is filled and labeled, it is placed upside down in a case box. Once the box is filled with 12 bottles, it is put on a pallet. When the pallet is full, four rows tall with a total of 56 cases, the whole thing is plastic-wrapped together to keep it stable for transporting with the hand lift.
If you’ve seen a call for volunteers to bottle wine, it probably sounds fun. And truly, I think you should do it. It helps a person to appreciate the price of a bottle of wine if you see all that goes into getting the wine into the bottle. But what you don’t think of when you sign up for helping is just how many things can go wrong. The automated bottling machine is all moving pistons and parts. And then you have 10 people doing different jobs, trying to keep the process moving along perfectly. Keep in mind, even the winemaker and staff don’t use this bottling line often, so it takes a little time to remember how to best handle issues.
During our first run, things went pretty smoothly, minus a couple of stops because the labelers were a little glitchy and labels would stick onto themselves to slow the process. At one point, there was a bit of spillage, some wine on the floor, which is not unusual. And here’s where the ‘floater’ comes in as important. The floater can see this happening and stop it before it gets too out of control. Each person who is focused on their specialized task finds it hard to see what’s happening outside of their little station of activity. We didn’t cry over spilled wine but cleaned up quickly to keep on moving.
As the morning wore on, a few people switched work positions. Then we had a nice lunch break, sitting on the back patio of the tasting room with fresh panninis from the kitchen. And then, it was back to work. To be honest, I have probably been more of the pushing force to shorten the breaks and get back to work. The reality is that my fur babies aren’t used to being home alone all day and I wanted to get back to them sooner instead of later!
The afternoon flowed pretty smoothly, and we finished at 4:20 p.m. By then, the other volunteers had all gone and it was the staff plus me. I was happy to have the closure of staying to the finish but didn’t stick around to help with cleaning. I understand the staff didn’t finish cleaning until well into the night and the 8 a.m. start the next day was tough! Did I mention winemaking is a lot of cleaning?
This morning my husband was out of town, and I took care of our fur babies and left home a bit early to detour to pick up a bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast taco from El Agave in Johnson City. I know, it’s silly to drive past the winery to go an extra 15 miles to order my taco and iced tea, and then head to my volunteer work for the day. But I figure a day starting with my favorite breakfast taco has got to be a good day!
As I arrived at 8 a.m., Mike and two employees were getting things laid out and ready for the first run. A few minutes later, my friend and former employee, Taryn, arrived to help out. Here’s where a bit of a long story comes into play. In late 2018, I opened Perspective Cellars wine shop in downtown Fredericksburg. Taryn worked for me for a bit over a year, and about a year before that, she poured wine at Hye Meadow. She is a huge fan of Mike’s wines. And she volunteers with them any time she can.
As for Perspective Cellars, this was a dream of mine to have a wine tasting room. Actually, I wanted to make wine and thought I was too old to start all over again and learn to be a winemaker. Since I had been studying wine since 2005 and have built up a pretty accurate palate, I thought that it would be easiest to open a wine tasting room. My focus was comparing a wine from Texas to the same wine from other regions of the world. I am so privileged that my little wine shop allowed me to form relationships with wonderful wine industry people all around the state. After nearly three years of getting the small business off the ground, I had decided I was ready to learn winemaking and enrolled in the Texas Tech winemaking certificate program which is to start in September. I wasn’t sure if that meant I would need to promote an employee to a manager position, or exactly what should happen with the wine shop. But then, my friend Taylor, a fellow Sommelier and daughter of a California winemaker, expressed she may be ready to open a tasting room or wine bar. This got me to thinking. Maybe I should move forward with something new and different. I sold Perspective Cellars to Taylor, and she has taken the reigns and has freshened up the decor and put her own twist on the Texas versus the World concept that I had started. My original staff stayed on board with her. And they are rocking it!
Today, we had Mike and Denise, along with two staff, me, and another volunteer. The six of us started just shortly after 8 a.m. and got things rolling. A short while later, we had a couple more volunteers arrive. Today was a bit tougher because one of the labeling machines got tangled upon itself and we were down nearly an hour getting it back up to speed. Super frustrating, but something that eventually worked out. While the machine was down, we kept on keeping on. We continued to bottle and put the unlabeled bottles into cases and stacked them aside for future labeling.
Once the labeling was back online, we unboxed the filled bottles and labeled them all. It’s better to label now while there is help as opposed to planning to label in the future, when there may not be sufficient help to make it happen efficiently. The labeling issues definitely slowed the day and made us feel a little less excited about the progress of the day. But in the big picture, we still bottled a lot of wine today! The Estate Montepulciano was about 215 cases, 145 cases of Petite Verdot, and 190 cases of Aglianico. What a busy day!
After two days of bottling from 8-4:30 p.m., my right foot and my sides are sore. But it’s not anything that won’t even itself out after some Ibuprofen and a glass of wine!
About the Author
Amie Nemec is a longtime wine lover, Sommelier, and founder of Perspective Cellars tasting room in Fredericksburg, Texas. She is now venturing down the path to learn winemaking, so, along with wine writing and food pairing posts, be on the lookout for Amie’s wines in coming years!