'It’s going to open doors': Mobile bottler eases load on wineries

By Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Michigan vineyards have a need. A need for speed.

In less than six hours, Youngblood Vineyard, a new, boutique winery in Macomb County, bottled, labeled and capped more than 10,000 bottles of five different red, white and rose wines, all produced from hybrid grapes harvested on the family’s 50-acre farm.

Like many other small wineries across the state, Youngblood Vineyard doesn’t have its own bottling line. Instead, the winery tapped the mobile bottling services of Harbor Hill Fruit Farms, which offers custom crush, vineyard and bottling operations and is the parent company of Aurora Cellars and Good Harbor Vineyards near Traverse City.

Andy Savina, operations manager for Harbor Hill Mobile Bottling, runs the machinery at Aurora Cellars near Lake Leelanau, Mich. Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020.

“It was a fabulous experience,” said Jessica Youngblood, who officially opened the winery with her husband, Dave, last spring, just after bottling their first vintage.

“We don’t have the space to have a bottling line that we are going to use once a year. It would have been such a waste of money for us. There are a lot of other things that we could spend money on. We can reinvest in our business and our vineyard.”

Harbor Hill Fruit Farm’s state-of-the-art mobile bottling line is a first for Michigan. Mobile bottling operations are common in California wine country and along the West Coast, but the concept is new for Michigan and is considered a game-changer for the state’s vibrant wine industry.

Access to mobile bottling operations brings scale to small and midsize wineries because they can package wine without a major investment in bottling equipment. The process is efficient and requires fewer hands and far fewer employee hours.

“I think it’s going to open doors for more wineries,” said Larry Mawby, founder of Mawby Vineyards and Winery on the Leelanau Peninsula and a pioneer in the industry. “A mobile bottling line offers start-up wineries the potential to begin with far-less capital investment, but they still can make high-quality products. It should help increase the number of start-up wineries and help small, existing wineries expand.”

Typically, Harbor Hill Fruit Farms shows up at a winery with its high-tech bottling line housed in a 37-foot trailer. The trailer is equipped with a nitrogen generator, air compressor, bottle and box-date encoder, and box taper. The machinery can accommodate various size bottles and has the capability of topping bottles with corks or screw caps. The winery supplies bottles, labels, corks, screw caps and capsules.

The Harbor Hill Mobile Bottling trailer's control panel has push-buttons to operate all aspects of bottling. The mobile machinery visited Aurora Cellars near Lake Leelanau, Mich. Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, where a crew bottled 255 cases of red wine for Soul Squeeze, a Lake Leelanau, Mi wintery.

Harbor Hill charges clients $2.65 to $3.65 per case, depending on the volume of cases.

Sam Simpson, co-owner of the family-owned Harbor Hill, said he began exploring the idea of offering a mobile bottling service more than three years ago. He was struck by the inefficiency of having two bottling lines at his own operations; they were underused and took up considerable space. He also was aware of many wineries using small manual hand spout fillers, which require a lot of hands-on attention and long hours.  

“We’ve been in the industry since the 1970s. We’ve gone through all these growth cycles that a lot of Michigan wineries are going through now,” said Simpson, the third-generation of his family involved in the farming operation. “There’s a huge learning curve and a huge investment. We thought this was a great opportunity to provide a service and save wineries money.”

Many of the state’s 150-plus wineries aren’t big enough to justify the costs of investing in bottling operations, which costs around $175,000 at the entry level, he said. If they are buying their own bottling equipment, they’re often purchasing machines that are often two to three decades old and frequently come with unexpected repairs. 

Harbor Hill’s bottling line can bottle about 1,800 cases in eight hours. In comparison, the manual hand spout fillers manage about 120 cases in the same time period. The former equipment Simpson used at Aurora pumped out about 400 cases.

“When you look at what grows brands, you have to invest in marketing, sales signs, and the vineyard for the quality of fruit,” he said.

Harbor Hill Mobile Bottling's operations manager Andy Savina operates  mobile bottling in their 38-foot-trailer at Aurora Cellars near Lake Leelanau, Mich. Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. A crew bottled 255 cases of red wine for Soul Squeeze, a Lake Leelanau, Mi winery.

Simpson purchased the mobile bottling equipment and trailer for $600,000, with help from a $150,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. He launched operations last spring, bottling for a handful of customers.

“We’re incredibly excited to see how the Michigan wine industry is growing,” Simpson said. “We want to be a part of it. We really believe a rising tide raises all ships. We view ourselves internally as a ladder for new wineries to use.”

Youngblood Vineyard was its first customer and will use the bottling service again this spring to package its second vintage. Youngblood conceded the family moved ahead with their modest winery, transforming a former Christmas tree and crop farm into vineyards, without a set plan for bottling.

“It’s tough for all of us small wineries to produce all these cases and not have access to a bottling machine,” said Youngblood, who is also a member of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, a nonprofit created to sustain and promote the industry. “I think this will help more wineries to invest back in the business and put more vines in the ground and make more wine. It saves money for all of us. We need more vineyards.”

In the case of Youngblood Vineyard, Harbor Hill traveled more than 250 miles, pulled up to the rear of the winery’s barn in Ray Township and began connecting hoses to steel wine tanks. It also hooked up to water and electricity sources. The Youngbloods tapped their three children and volunteers to help with the process, joining the two-member team from Harbor Hill Fruit Farms.

Harbor Hill’s mobile bottling operator Andy Savina said there has been an uptick in business since the mobile bottling operations began last spring. The long list of customers includes wineries in southwest Michigan and in the Traverse City area. The company’s hope is to expand to customers in the Petoskey area, southeast Michigan and bordering states.

Cases of red wine are moved from the Harbor Hill Mobile Bottling trailer  Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, where a crew bottled 255 cases of the wine for Soul Squeeze, a Lake Leelanuau, Mi wintery.

One of the first customers of this bottling season was Soul Squeeze Cellars, a new winery in Lake Leelanau on the Leelanau Peninsula.

“It’s made such a big difference,” said Luke Pickelman, who, along with his wife, Faye, opened Soul Squeeze Cellars last spring. The winery grows wine grapes on both the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas and produces about 1,500 cases a year. “It’s so efficient. It removes the headache of owning and maintaining a bottling line. It really takes a load off you.”

In a matter of two hours the other day, Soul Squeeze Cellars bottled 265 cases of its 2017 Parable Petite Sirah, a red wine grape that spent nearly two years aging in a French oak barrel.  Because Soul Squeeze Cellars uses Harbor Hill’s custom services, the bottling occurred at Aurora Cellars, just a few miles from Lake Leelanau.

When Pickelman first used the mobile bottling operation last year, he planned staff for two days to help with the packaging of his 2018 Rapt Riesling, 2018 U Chardonnay and 2018 Good Fight Pinot Gris. The bottling was completed in five hours.

“We were blown away at the speed,” he said.

Bottles of wine move to the rear of the Harbor Hill Mobile Bottling trailer Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, where a crew will box the red wine for Soul Squeeze, a Lake Leelanau, Mi wintery.

The next several weeks will be especially busy as wineries bottle their white varietals, harvested last fall. 

“We’re looking at a pretty robust year,” said Savina, a former assistant vineyard manager and assistant winemaker at Brengman Brothers who was mesmerized upon seeing the mobile bottling operation in action at a trade show.

"Across the board, people are seeing a minimum of doubling their bottling speed. To double or triple production is a big deal.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.