On an overcast Sunday afternoon, Norm Cole rolls up the driveway of Laughing Stock Vineyards pulling a 32-foot trailer that wouldn’t look out of place hauling cattle on a ranch in Alberta.
With the skill of a big-rig trucker, Cole inches the oversized unit along a narrow driveway cut into the hillside above Okanagan Lake, until the rear bumper nudges the entrance of Laughing Stock’s warehouse.
He greets winery owner David Enns with a handshake and throws open the back of the trailer, revealing a self-contained bottling line capable of churning out 1,200 cases of wine a day.
“This is our smaller unit. It just came back from a week on Vancouver Island,” says Mr. Cole, owner of Artus Bottling, a Naramata, B.C.-based company that provides on-site bottling services to wineries around the province.
“The 42-footer was at Dirty Laundry (Vineyard) in Summerland yesterday and now it’s on its way to Forbidden Fruit (Winery) in Cawston.”
Artus, founded in 2005, was the first company in Canada to offer an independent, door-to-door wine bottling service, and it remains the only one with more than one mobile unit in operation.
Mr. Cole, who was raised in Mississauga, Ont., and studied chemical engineering at Sheridan College, moved to the Okanagan with his wife Janice in 1997 after falling in love with the area during a vacation the previous summer. Convinced the Valley’s wine industry had a bright future, Mr. Cole landed a job as a “cellar rat” at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards and quickly worked his way up to assistant winemaker.
The idea of starting a mobile bottling service occurred to him when Tinhorn decided to put some of its wine in screw-cap bottles but couldn’t find any equipment to do the job locally. “Nobody up here had a machine, so we had to rent one from California,” Mr. Cole said. “For two days I think it cost us $2,000.”
Further market research indicated that the wine industry was undergoing a wholesale shift from corks to screw-caps.
“This was at the very beginning of the trend to switch over, and nobody was really doing any screw-cap in Canada,” he said. “There were large numbers in Australia and it was catching on in Europe, but North America was one of the last areas to catch on.”
Armed with $300,000 in financing – about 90 per cent of it in the form of a federal government small-business loan – Mr. Cole had his first trailer custom-built in Indiana and shipped to Vancouver, where the more difficult job of configuring and installing the bottling line’s machinery took place.
“You’re essentially taking machines designed to be in a room that’s 20 by 30 feet and squeezing them into a room that’s only eight feet wide,” Mr. Cole said. “It’s a bit of a challenge.”
The compact unit is “basically a complete bottling line that you would find in any production facility.”
The bottles are blown clean with high-pressure air jets and “sparged” with nitrogen to eliminate all traces of oxygen. The labeller is loaded and the capper can be modified to accommodate screw-caps or corks.
Every spring, Mr. Cole bottles, caps, labels and boxes Laughing Stock’s entire annual output – about 6,500 cases – in less than a week.
For small operations like Laughing Stock’s – most of Naramata’s two dozen cottage wineries produce less than 10,000 cases a year – Artus eliminates the need to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in bottling lines that operate only a few days a year.
“It would cost us at least $150,000 to put in our own line,” Mr. Enns said. “We only have five or six bottling days a year, so it’s just not worth the investment.”
A year after Mr. Cole founded Artus, Ontario resident Grant Moore launched Custom Quality Bottling Ltd., a 53-foot mobile line based in Campbellford, in southern Ontario wine country.
“We’re right at the beginning of the trend,” Mr. Moore said. “There’s three or four of us in Canada. At last count there was something like 75 of them in California.”
In 2008, Mr. Cole decided to invest in a second truck after a highway fender-bender knocked the first one off the road for six weeks. He also hired and trained new staff to take his place in the event of an illness or injury.
“I was running the only machine at that time, so if me or the trailer went down the customers wouldn’t be able to bottle their wine,” he says.
The new 42-foot trailer, which cost $700,000, can bottle up to 1,800 cases a day, but it’s too cumbersome to access some of the smaller wineries that Artus serves, he adds.
Mr. Cole’s third trailer, now in the planning stages, will be a 32-footer with an increased capacity of about 1,600 cases a day, just as compact but more efficient than the original one, which will soon need to be replaced.
But he says he’s been far too busy this spring to spend time working on the new truck.
“For the last two months we’ve been going at least five and often six days a week,” he says. “Things usually slow down a little in the summer.”