The Bottle Meister keeps the wine flowing for Central Coast wineries

Grapes are picked, pressed, fermented and racked into barrels to age — most any wine drinker knows that part of the story.

But there’s another crucial step before the wine gets to the consumer — the tricky job of getting it out of the barrels and into the bottles that will carry it to the store shelf, restaurant cellar or your dining room table.

It’s a job that requires expensive, bulky equipment. So for most Central Coast wineries, it means calling in a mobile bottling operation.

“It doesn’t make sense for the wineries to have all this equipment that they’re only going to use two or three times a year,” said Tom Nulman, who owns The Bottle Meister, one of a handful of such operations in San Luis Obispo County. “We can roll up and be done with it in a day.”

Packed into a tractor-trailer is all the equipment needed to sterilize, fill, cap and label thousands of bottles, with just enough room for one or two technicians and a handful of helpers supplied by the winery to squeeze in and keep everything running.

Nulman, who started the business in 1998 and now has 15 employees, owns three such trucks. The newest cost more than $1 million to buy and outfit.

Here’s a peek into how they work:

Keep clean

The day begins long before the first drip flows into a bottle.

“We get here at 5:15 to start bottling by 7,” said Todd Kundrat, a Bottle Meister technician.

Just a hint of bacteria, yeast or fungi can spoil an entire lot, so everything is sanitized at 250 degrees for at least an hour to kill any potential contaminants. Hoses and valves are checked to make sure everything is air-tight.

“It’s very similar to an operating room,” Nulman said. “We start out spotless every morning, get real busy all day, then clean it all back up again every night and get ready for the next day.”

Keep up

The line moves 68 bottles a minute. That’s more than a bottle a second, and the technicians must make sure every one is just right.

“Timing is crucial,” said Carl Browckett, one of The Bottle Meister’s senior technicians. “Any slowdowns add up quickly over an eight-hour day.”

On a good day, the crew can bottle 2,200 cases. Assuming a wholesale price of $200 per case (or about $17 per bottle), that’s $440,000 worth of wine flowing through the system in a day.

Keep going

Bottling may only happen a couple times a year for the wineries, but it’s every day for Nulman and his crew. They get a little break in October, when winemakers are busy with the harvest. So they’ll take a little time off, then rebuild and repair all the trucks.

Outside that, they’ll be somewhere between Santa Ynez and Soledad bottling for one of their 140 or so customers who book The Bottle Meister up to a year in advance.

“It’s exhausting work,” Nulman said.