Napa wine bottle screen-printer Bergin fires up big expansion

Mike Bergin, president and CEO of Bergin Screen-Printing & Etching, in the new 82,000-square-foot Napa facility on Feb. 26, 2018. (JEFF QUACKENBUSH / NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL)

JEFF QUACKENBUSH,

Bergin Screen-Printing & Etching is putting the finishing touches on a big expansion in Napa Valley on its 30th year in business.

Bergin started as a boutique etcher of wine bottles, but for over a decade has been expanding mostly into screen-printing of labels. It moved into all of a newly finished 82,000-square-foot facility at 451 Technology Way in south Napa on Jan. 2, giving it room to grow for another decade and a half, according to founder, President and CEO Mike Bergin.

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But the expansion has been in the works since 2014. At the time, Bergin was eight years into a 10-year lease at 2511 Napa Valley Corporate Drive and had outgrown its space. Bergin initially had moved into 24,000 of the 52,000-square-foot building then expanded to 31,000 then 41,000 square feet. A winery occupied the rest.

“It wouldn’t have been big enough for us anyway,” Bergin said.

Over a dozen years, company revenue had tripled to eight figures annually.

The company had an option to extend the lease for three years, and that came in handy for the length of time required for the expansion.

“It took two years just to try to identify real estate in Napa County, which can be very tight and very difficult,” Bergin said. Vacancy rates for industrial buildings in southern Napa Valley is less than 2 percent for large spaces, according to local real estate experts.

But Napa Valley is where Bergin Glass Impressions had to be, said its founder.

“Even though we have clients scattered all over California, Napa Valley really is the central hub for so many winery suppliers, be it corks, capsules, you name it,” Bergin said. Several large glass suppliers are located roughly 10 miles east through Jameson Canyon on Highway 12 in Fairfield.

Many of the company’s 51 full-time employees live around Napa. Bergin himself has the longest commute, coming from Petaluma. The company started with two employees.

EQUIPMENT UPGRADE

The last four years Bergin in which has been preparing for expansion have been challenging production-wise.

The new facility accommodates a big production upgrade for Bergin. It now has two high-speed print lines and one for small-scale production.

Screen-printing is one of the newer ways to put a label on a wine bottle. Paper labels have been around for centuries, and two main forms are applied to bottles with glue or rolled on sticker-style (pressure-sensitive labels).

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Typical winery production among Bergin’s 550 current customers is skewed toward smaller-production runs. Common annual production of roughly 2,000 six-bottle cases (12,000 bottles) in several product variations, known in the retail world as stock-keeping units (SKUs).

“We do a lot of 150- to 1,000-case runs,” Bergin said. The company usually says it accommodates jobs of 100–25,000 cases.

Five screen-printing machines feed into the small-scale lehr, or furnace, used for hardening the ceramic paint on the glass at 1,180 degrees Fahrenheit. That line regularly handles 10,000–12,000 bottles per shift.

Bergin’s Print Department runs 20 hours a day. That’s two 10-hour shifts Monday–Thursday, setting aside Fridays for overtime production, when needed.

“And right now, we’re working a lot of Fridays, even in the new facility” Bergin said.

The new facility has two high-speed print lines instead of one. The new line has the highest capacity, up to 70,000 bottles a day. The older high-speed line can turn out as many as 55,000 bottles daily.

The screen-printers move through 45–65 bottles a minute for the high-speed lines (up to 80 a minute for the new line) and 24–26 a minute for the hand-fed smaller line.

“When we expanded into this facility with three lines, it gives our production manager some flexibility to fluidly move between the three lines,” Bergin said.

So for a large-scale order, the two high-speed lines might be dedicated to the job for a few days then shift the project to the smaller line. At any time during the production day, at least one high-speed line operating, and jobs are shifted between the other two lines as needed.

The print crew didn’t have such flexibility before the expansion, Bergin said. If there were busy weeks and an 18,000- to 20,000-bottle run needed to be moved through quickly, it was difficult to be scheduled on the highest-speed line and would have to be done on the smaller line.

Bergin’s design team has five full-time designers, four dedicated to making sure art turns out best for screen-printing and one who does so for etching.

About 60 percent of new business for Bergin includes more interaction between a vintner’s design team and Bergin’s. The company offers limited design services, but redesigns or extensive branding changes are best referred out to a design house, Bergin said.

ORGANIC GROWTH

Bergin’s growth model is a sales increase of 5 percent–8 percent per year. Much of that comes from existing clients, often from the addition of a product line such as a varietal or something different to keep interest building in wine clubs or trade customers.

With the addition of the higher-speed production line, the company can approach its larger clients with brands they want to build that are retailing for less than $10 a bottle and work with them to shift to screen-printed labels at a more aggressive per-bottle price, Bergin said.

“These are the ones who are launching 25,000-case brands,” he said.

The cost of screen-printed labels always will be more expensive than for paper labels, Bergin said. That’s because entire bottles are moving through the process, instead of just paper sheets or rolls of pressure-sensitive labels. But if special treatment is called for on paper labels such as embossing, debossing or foil-stamping, the cost for screen-printing could be within 5 percent or 10 percent, Bergin said.

“For a 50,000-case run, we will be more expensive than paper, but surprisingly not that much more,” he said. “It’s all about the branding and what you’re trying to accomplish with the look. With screen-printing, it enhances the value of the brand. … It makes a $15 bottle of wine look like it should sell for $25.”

Now that a crimp on production capacity is less of an issue, Bergin said he wants to be able to serve 1,000 customers in five to seven years. Other than 10 olive-oil customers (one is a winery) and a few spirits clients, Bergin’s customers are producers of wine retailing from $20 to $200 a bottle.

One of the biggest challenges to expansion is a problem familiar to vineyard and wine-related companies: labor, Bergin said. Part of the reason for the latest expansion is to allow room for more automation and efficiency, to increase production with the same number of employees. For example, the high-speed lines have robotics to move bottles in and out of cases, and the new building allows the crew to work on all the lines in one room, rather moving between buildings.

Some major competitors for Bergin in wine label screen-printing include Universal in Canada’s British Columbia, Monvera in Richmond in the Bay Area, and New Jersey-based Quest Industries, which focuses on spirits packaging. Southern California has bottle screen-printers, many focused on the beer and spirits industries.

GROWING INTEREST IN SCREEN-PRINTING

Bergin started making inroads into screen-printing in 2001 and invested heavily in 2006. The rise of rosé wines in the past few years has increased interest in flint (clear) bottles to show off the wine color and labels with ample open spaces to allow the hue to become part of the label design, Bergin said.

Ways of approaching such open spaces in label design include die-cut labels, often of the pressure-sensitive variety, and screen-printing. Advances in paper design have allowed paper labels to survive being submerged in ice buckets for extended periods, but screen-printed labels don’t have that issue.

And it’s not just ice water that can foil the marriage of label and bottle. For wines that are filled in bottles cold, condensation can form on the glass between the filler station and the labeler, causing challenges for label adhesion.

Designs that wrap entirely around bottles is also possible with screen-printing, something that has been achieved through shrink-wrapped labels mainly on lower-priced wines and long-rolled-around pressure-sensitive labels like on Francis Ford Coppola’s Director’s Cut wine.

Another feature in which screen-printing can shine for wine bottles is decoration of shoulders and necks, which is available on the high-speed lines, Bergin said.

A downside to screen-printed labels is they have to be approached as spot-color based, making photographic reproduction that’s possible on conventional and digital process presses challenging to achieve in screen-printing.

But there is a limit to the number of spot colors that’s feasible. Bergin’s highest-speed line is capable of applying up to eight colors. Typical labels Bergin prints have two to six colors.

ETCHED INTO ITS DNA

Bergin’s bottle screen-printing process involves a lot of automation in applying ink and handling bottles, but the etching side of the business continues to be done by hand, as it has been since the company started. It can take the team of eight artisans and four etchers 35 minutes to 10 hours to mask, sand-blast and paint each bottle.

“We can literally reproduce a Picaso, if need be,” Bergin said.

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Laser-etching machines can put names onto stemware or bottles, but the full-label recreations Bergin targets are something that eludes present automation, he said.

One technician painstakingly applies a mask to a bottle to keep the sand-blasting from carving away other parts of the bottle, then another technician in a special booth blasts away the exposed glass to the desired depths. Next, the bottle goes for paint to be hand-applied by brushes and other tools into the crevices of the design. Then comes final cleanup of the bottle to be reach for shipment.

“It is still, very much, an artisanal hand process,” Bergin said. “Can’t get around that.”

Etched label design can range from one-color gold to reproductions of complicated wine labels. Typical orders range from a dozen to 100-plus bottles and are used for rewards to high-end club members, top restaurant placements and auctions.

“More than just auction lots, it can also be a nice revenue stream for wineries, especially magnums (1.5 liters) and 3 liters,” Bergin said. Those two sizes and 6-liter bottles (called Methuselah or imperial) are the most popular for etching at Bergin. The company can work with bottles up to 27 liters (primat or Goliath).

Unlike screen-printing, which involves a 2.5-hour trip for bottles through the lehr, etching is a cold process and can be done on bottles filled with delicate wine.

Jeff Quackenbush (jquackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256) covers the wine business, construction and real estate.