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California Wine Country vintner steps up automation in latest label-removal device

When a cork needs to be pulled and replaced with one from another maker, or a label needs to changed, it requires an aspect of the wine industry less known than others, and Napa Wine Staffing is among the companies that do the work.

Owner Alejandro Alfaro says delabeling or label stripping can be one of the more labor-intensive tasks, depending on how easily the paper and adhesive is removed.

“Some jobs take hours to finish a case,” Alfaro said. “Some involve packing and repacking.”

The cost for repackaging varies with the job, but Alfaro has seen projects start at $5 per 12-bottle case and run up to $10–$15, especially for enhancements seen on luxury-priced bottles such as sequentially numbered labels or wax seals.

“Some jobs take hours to finish a case,” Alfaro said. “Some involve packing and repacking.”

A labor crunch for the California wine business in recent years and particularly with the current concerns among workers about COVID-19 infection, automation that increasingly has been making inroads into viticulture and winemaking is now being considered and rolled out for labor-intensive packaging tasks.

David Crawford, co-owner and general manager of Top It Off Bottling, has been contemplating automation for the decanting and delabeling jobs he bids on to get the cost mostly below $10 a case and reduce the risk of worker injury.

Right now, the mobile bottler offers to do it for $8–$15 a case, depending on the size of the label — bigger ones take longer — and how many workers are needed to complete the task. He bids on repackaging projects up to 10,000 cases.

“If I’m going a 3,000-case project, I can’t have it take the better part of a month,” he said.

The pace of relabeling now is about 300 cases a day, but he wants to be able to do that with three people versus 18.

“The way we do it right now is risky with razor blades to take the labels off. It’s not great from a workers’ comp standpoint that.”

Soaking bottles in tubs of water and certain agents loosens the paper and adhesive to make the scraping easier.

Other repackaging tasks include injecting nitrogen into wine bottles to push out the cork. Then a new cork can be inserted, or the wine can be transferred to a tank for refermenting, treatment for unwanted Brettanomyces yeast impact on flavor or aroma, or removal of glass shards introduced from incorrect bottling line setup.

“Four years ago, I had a vintner take the wine out because it was Napa (cabernet sauvignon) and it was worth more in bulk than under the label it had,” Crawford said.

The transfer job cost $50,000, but with the surge in demand for Napa Valley cab in bulk at the time it was sold for $60 a gallon, more than triple what it could fetch today. That brought the vintner three times more than the projected revenue for the bottled wine, even with the decanting cost, Crawford said.

His dream for an automated cork and label removal device remains just that at the moment, he said.

But Alpine Engineering Solutions (707-479-8692) thinks its latest, more automated version of its mechanized label stripper is closer to what vintners are looking for. The Healdsburg-based company run by winemaker and inventor Nick Goldschmidt started selling the Lola 200 system at the end of August.

It’s designed to take up about as much floor space as one standing worker — 1.5 feet by 1 foot and 4 feet high — and remove 3.3–7 labels per minute, or 130–275 per day with one to two operators.

He said it takes about two minutes to make three changes to accommodate a different bottle size (375 milliliter half-bottles up to 1.5-liter magnums) and shape (tapered or straight sides). One is a change of the puck that holds the bottom of the bottle. Another is to adjust the angle of the knife to match the bottle. And the third is the orifice for the carbon dioxide that is the key player in lifting, rather than scraping, the label from the bottle.

Here is the Lola 200 delabeler in action:

Goldschmidt said he’s sold seven so far. The Napa machine shop that’s making them has two more on the production floor and capacity to produce five a week.

“The primary focus is selling them to bottling lines, but Americans don’t always think like that,” he said. “They think of ROI and only want one because they have a big problem.”

One buyer purchased two machines to deal with 20,000 cases with glue separation on the back labels.

But Goldschmidt is marketing the units to be integrated with bottling lines to solve everyday problems such as five or 20 cases with errant labels. The price starts at $15,000 for bottling line applications.

The first version of the label stripper went into production five years ago in New Zealand and found success in Australia, with over 400 of the lever-operated units sold there and around the world. It originally was developed for a large global wine beverage company that had a large recall of wines for the United Kingdom market that were out of sequence.

Another buyer put cabernet sauvignon labels on the front of bottles but chardonnay back labels, and one customer spelled chardonnay on a front label with only one “N.”

Because of such costly labeling problems that can make it all the way from designer to printer to bottling line, Peregrine Mobile Bottling has the vintner representative hand the crew the labels they want to use.

“I don’ t want my workers to go to a stack of labels and choose the wrong one,” said Thomas Jordan, president. “Every time we change a roll for 2,000 to 5,000 bottles, we have a sheet shows the customer verified the label when changed.”

A common feature of large bottling lines are optical label verification systems, but they haven’t made it to the space-conscious world of U.S. mobile bottlers yet, he said.

Crawford of Top It Off Bottling said he had considered purchasing one of Alpine Engineering Solutions’ label strippers but estimated it would be too expensive, given he figures at least three people would be needed for that workflow, including a person to stack finished product.

“We might bid on 20 projects and six become reality because of the cost,” Crawford said of the current amount charged for manual delabeling. “If I charge $15 a case and the wine is less than $25 a bottle, it is not worth it for us. My goal is to automate to get below $10 a case.”

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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