The Importance of Being Bottled

Wines not bottled at source have a bit of a bad reputation for many people, and it seems the main reason is the lack of guarantee of origin and quality, something that is supposedly conferred by the producer’s bottle and label.

A moment’s thought however reveals that any guarantee is far from absolute. Bottles and labels can be faked, and they offer no protection from rogue producers. Also, wine can now be transported efficiently and safely in bulk, with traceability afforded by documentation and information technology.

The guarantee is really only required when there are significant distances between production and consumption – in wine-producing regions empty containers are often taken to a nearby producer for refill. The locals are of course in a great position to know the seller’s reputation, and may even make wine themselves.

As far as small producers are concerned, selling to locals is one thing, but bottling their wine is often the key to getting better prices from large cities, and possibly other countries. And once in a bottle with a label, wine can take a very different position in society. It is no longer a lightly processed agricultural product, only of local significance, but an international lifestyle product. The larger and cheaper brands are designed for the mass market, while more expensive wines available in smaller quantities become desirable luxury goods. At the luxury end of the market, connoisseurship is enabled by bottles and labels. They allow critics to write about a particular wine and vintage, and punters that are possibly in another part of the world can then buy what purports to be the same wine. Even if it is common knowledge that wine can vary considerably between bottles of the same lot, particularly for older vintages, somehow that variation is conveniently forgotten by connoisseurs when obsessing over wine. Thus, labels change how the product is regarded, and they can so easily mislead.

The culture surrounding natural wines largely ignores conventional wine connoisseurship, and I think in many ways would be more at home with the idea of bulk wine – something meant to be quaffed rather than sipped. Is not bottling one of the most unnatural things you can do to a wine? Even if you leave out the preliminary steps of fining, filtering and dosing with sulphites, squeezing wine into a closed space with little oxygen cramps its style. However, bottling is important to reach the more lucrative market city markets and their natural wine bars. Best not use a traditional wine label though – rather get a mate to design something funky and rebellious, so those connoisseur types know to stay away.

There are comparisons to be drawn here between en rama Sherries and natural wines. Strictly speaking an en rama Sherry is taken directly from a solera cask, and valued for its fresh and lively character. Which is all very well if you have access to casks in a Sherry bodega, but not so handy if you live in another country. So Sherry houses now offer the en rama experience oxymoronically from a bottle, where its contents have only minimal processing – perhaps a little fining, only coarse filtration, and minimal sulphite usage. And in doing so, unlike many natural wine producers, it seems they have a product with connoisseur-appeal.

If only for environmental reasons, we need to explore alternatives to bottling wine at source, even if there are huge image problems to overcome for most customers. The romance of drinking unbottled wine in situ might, just might, be a starting point to convince some people. It would work for me, but then I am a far-from-typical wine drinker.

How to create flat rectangular images of wine bottle labels

I am writing here about digital images that look like the labels before they were stuck onto wine bottles. Apart from sometimes looking cool, they have the advantage that they show all the information – nothing is hiding on the edge of the label as it disappears round the back of the bottle. My main interest in this style is for blog posts, but you might want label images for an e-commerce website, or to maintain a record of wines you have enjoyed.

One technique is of course to remove the label from the bottle before you photograph or scan it, but here are a couple of ways of doing it all digitally. Neither of them were invented by me, but as they do not seem to be widely known I thought it was worth describing them here.

Smartphone camera panorama mode

The basic idea is that you rotate the bottle in front of the lens to trick your phone camera into thinking you are taking a panorama. The camera software then stitches together images taken at different times, and you finish up with a single image of a flat label. I found it was just about possible to do this with a hand-held phone resting on a table, while rotating the bottle with the other hand, but the results were poor. To get something more presentable, you ideally need a tripod for your phone, a turntable for the bottle, and decent lighting. Fortunately, the hardware need not be expensive. If you have a record turntable or a Lazy Susan, you could press that into service. Alternatively you could buy a bottle-sized bearing for a Lazy Susan. I found one for just over £2.50 including postage, which was ideal. Also, for a couple of quid I bought a clip that enabled me to mount my phone onto an ordinary camera tripod I already owned. Here are both bits of kit:

I was using a Samsung Note 4, and sadly failed to get any label images I thought would be suitable for use on my blog, but I know people that have had much better success with iPhone cameras. So something for iPhone owners only perhaps? (Though for real panoramic landscapes I have had great results with my Note 4, so don’t let that put you off the Samsung camera.)

In more detail, here were the problems I encountered… I frequently got a glitch at the side of the label that I started from, which I assume is due to some issue with the camera realising too late that the panorama shooting had started. Also I usually got at least one vertical slice of the label missing. Both these faults are illustrated in the two images here – click on them to see at full resolution. You will also notice that the upper and lower edges of the labels are uneven and not perfectly horizontal, which I think is due to the wide-angle nature of the phone lens. Those edges are even worse when I tried without turntable and tripod.

Flatbed scanner

With this method, as the scanner is operating, you need to roll the bottle so the bit in touch with the scanner glass is always where strip of light is. You might think that sounds tricky, but in fact you do not have to be very precise in your rolling, and it is not difficult to get right. In this picture, the bottle is in a good starting position to scan the main label. When the scanning starts, the scanning light strip will move from right to left, and the bottle must be rolled in the same direction.

It is worth playing with the scanner resolution. Apart from its obvious effect on the quality of the scan, it will also affect its speed, and I found that with moderate speeds it was a lot easier to track the bottle. Too fast or too slow and it is either too tricky or too tiresome. Perhaps due to the accuracy of rolling with faster speeds, I also found that with lower resolutions I got barely visible vertical bands on the lighter parts of the label – you can just about see them on the images in my previous blog post. With a slighty higher resolution though, they go away completely, as can be seen here. Again, click to see the full-sized image.

With my scanner, the resolution that gave an easy speed to track, resulted in a lot coarser image than my mobile phone camera. But for my purposes that resolution is adequate, and the scanner method is very easy and reliable – a lot more reliable than using the panorama mode on my Note 4 at least. The top and bottom edges of the label image are also nicely horizontal and straight.

I think your choice of method will most likely depend on what kit you already have available. For me, with no iPhone, and a flatbed scanner already sitting by my desk, the choice is clear, and the reliability of the scanner method is the deciding factor.