Brent Baker travels across the Midwest helping winemakers with the final step of the process: going from barrel to bottle. Old Woolam Custom Bottling is based in Owensville, Missouri, near Hermann, but Baker crisscrosses the state for winemakers at Chaumette Vineyards & Winery, Noboleis Vineyards, Amigoni Urban Winery, Peaceful Bend Vineyard and more. He has spent the past decade perfecting his craft, leading to more growth and efficiency in the local wine industry.
What made you want to get into the wine industry? I’ve always wanted to start my own business, but had a successful career in the printing industry. With the onslaught of the digital age, printing continued to diminish, and I felt it was time to go out on my own. I’ve always had interest in the craft beverage business, starting with home-brewing back in the early ’90s, then opening a microbrewery, Roller Mill Brewing Co., a few years later. About 15 years ago, I became friends with a local winemaker and helped him hand-bottle for several years. It’s a tedious and time-consuming process. After hand-bottling countless times, I realized it was a very inefficient process, and it wasn’t the best for the wine. My friend had recently purchased an automated bottling line, and I helped him install [it] and [trained him] to run it. That’s how this whole party got started.
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Your job is more than just filling bottles. Can you explain what you do and what goes into bottling wine? To be successful, you must wear a lot of hats: mechanic, electrical technician, salesman, bookkeeper, cellar master, consultant, driver. This is a one-man operation, so I’m responsible for dealing with any issues that come up. If equipment breaks, you have to fix it. You’re taking the winemaker’s baby that has taken months to perfect, and he or she is trusting you to bottle it properly. Once wine is bottle-ready, bottling needs to happen as soon as possible. You must know sanitation, sterilization, filtering and really the whole process of wine production to be good at bottling. Sanitation is of the utmost importance, and we spend a lot of time and effort to ensure a product has sterility in the bottle, and [to] give the wine the very best treatment possible.
Did you buy an existing line or build it from scratch? The bottling line was purchased as a stand-alone piece of equipment that’s meant for a static location. We custom-designed the trailer around it and custom-fabricated most of the support equipment. I’m fortunate to have a great fabricator to work with who can take my designs and put them into working solutions for our mobile platform. We carry all the necessary equipment, so the winery only needs to supply the wine, bottles, closures and labels.
What part of the job do you enjoy the most? The best part is [helping] people achieving their dreams of operating a winery. In some small way, we’re helping wineries grow and produce a better product. I also like the daily challenge of mobile bottling. No two days are alike, and you’re constantly having to think on your feet. The biggest part I like is the people we get to work with. I consider all of my customers my friends!
What’s your biggest challenge? The amount of time I spend away from home. In some cases, I’m gone up to three weeks at a time. We cover a large area to get the number of bottling days necessary for this to make business sense, which means a lot of travel.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the wine industry since you started? Over the past six years, I have seen the quality of wines in the Midwest improve, as well as the technologies that are at the winemaker’s disposal. There are a lot of fantastic wines being produced in the Midwest, and I encourage everyone to get out to your local winery and give them a try. Keep your mind and palate open to varietals you may not be familiar with; you might find a new favorite.
Old Woolam Custom Bottling, 3207 State Hwy V, Owensville, Missouri, oldwoolamcustombottling.com