A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Vineyard
BY Hal Plotkin
Here's how an aspiring vintner established a mobile wine-bottling operation to raise money for his own vineyard.
On the Road
NAPA COUNTY, CALIF.--The Bottling Room Inc. fills an industry niche just barely big enough to drive a truck through, but Eric Peterson is trying. "We get into places no one else can reach," says Peterson, whose six encounters with various ditches have left him awaiting rescue by tow trucks and winches. "Getting stuck is an occupational hazard."
Peterson, 47, has wanted to buy a winery ever since earning a wine-making degree 24 years ago. To generate capital, he decided to explore an idea that fermented during the two decades he spent working for several top vineyards: he wanted to start a mobile bottling operation to serve small wineries. While the largest wineries usually had their own bottling equipment, small wineries often couldn't afford to purchase and maintain the assembly-line equipment that purifies and fills bottles and then adds custom labels, foil, and corks. The bottling problem is particularly acute at the most remote wineries, unreachable by the large tractor trailers used by more-established mobile bottlers. Equipping a truck to serve that niche took Peterson a decade.
"There weren't any bottling trucks that could get up our hill," says Bob Long, owner of 20 planted acres nestled at the end of a steep and narrow road, once a goat trail, high atop Napa County's picturesque Pritchard Hill. Before he discovered Peterson, Long and his wine maker would routinely spend several weeks a year working a manual two-spout filler. "The hardest part was getting the labels on straight," Long recalls. His recalcitrant and outdated bottling equipment "worked like the Denver airport baggage system," he says.
These days Long simply runs a hose from his tanks into Peterson's truck, which arrives every few months. Within seconds, the bottled fluids emerge packed neatly into cases that roll down a ramp, at up to 250 per hour, and are then placed on shipping pallets. The charge: less than $2 per case. The truck, a 26,000-pound, 1995 Isuzu cab custom-grafted onto an old 1971 Ford moving van, houses eight different machines that are connected in a Rube Goldberglike configuration designed by Peterson and his 78-year-old father, Pete, a retired high school science teacher. Working with an assistant, Peterson usually stations himself at the line's central pivot point, where he can quickly rescue an errant bottle or hit the red panic button that stops the line. "Some shapes are easier to handle than others," Peterson explains as he deftly uprights a toppled bottle. But the real trick is getting to and from his jobs. At Long Vineyards, for example, Peterson must carefully exit the steep, winding road in reverse because that's the only gear in which his truck's engine is powerful enough to handle it. "It can get pretty exciting," he says.
And it's not a bad business, either. The Bottling Room processes more than 200,000 cases a year, up from 50,000 in 1986, its first year. Patents are pending on several of its innovations, including one that can speed up any bottling operation. As a result, Peterson has attracted the attention of other wine makers, including a Chilean bottling company that purchased a Peterson-designed bottling truck for $250,000. Armed with profits in the vicinity of $200,000, Peterson finds himself edging ever closer to his ultimate goal: joining the genteel ranks of winery owners. He's never lost sight of it, no matter how deep the ditch. "That was always," Peterson says, "the original dream."
The University of California at Davis offers a highly regarded program in viticulture and enology, including both degree programs and extension courses. For information about courses in the degree programs, contact the University of California at Davis, Department of Viticulture and Enology, Davis, CA 95616-8727; 916-752-0380. For information on continuing-education and extension courses, contact the University Extension at the University of California at Davis, 916-757-8777. Or visit the Web site for more information.
BOTTLING ROOM, Eric Peterson, P.O. Box 366, Davis, CA 95617; 800-WINEBTL or 916-758-1192 26
LONG VINEYARDS, Bob Long, P.O. Box 50, St. Helena, CA 94574; 707-963-2496 26