As a busy winemaker, taking notes can be a rushed or even haphazard process. Between harvest and bottling and endlessly tweaking this year’s red blend that just isn’t coming out right, record-keeping can fall to the wayside.
But as you age each wine to perfection, it’s important to consider the business side of the winery. Winemaking is an art, but the winery is a business like any other. The numbers have to add up, and it’s hard to know whether they do without accurate records. As the winemaker, you have a key role in this process, whether you’re the sole production employee or you manage a large cellar team. You set the tone for how things are done, and improving your documentation processes can have a major impact on the entire business. Not to mention it can free up your time to focus on the wine. (If this sounds counterintuitive, we promise it’s not — read on.)
In this post, we’ll cover ways you can improve your record-keeping processes, get better information, and even go paperless.
Table of Contents
- Benefits of Better Record-Keeping in the Winery
- What Information Should Winemakers Record?
- Record-Keeping Methods for Winemakers
- Dive Deeper Into Winery Software
Benefits of Better Record-Keeping in the Winery
Smarter Winemaking Decisions
Likely of the highest importance to you, the wine itself can benefit from better note-taking. With clear and accessible notes, you can more easily recreate the success of previous wines if you’re so inclined. You won’t have to guess about things like fermentation time, top-off volumes and sources, specific types and brands of additives, and aging time and type. That information will be there in your notes, and you can decide how to replicate or adjust the winemaking process as you see fit.
Sometimes, the wine just doesn’t turn out the way you envisioned it. It happens to every winemaker. When you’ve documented the entire process from start to finish, you can more easily identify what went wrong. It may be an obvious mistake or something that takes more analysis. But with detailed notes, you’ll have the right information to figure it out.
While getting in the habit of keeping detailed records can be time-consuming at first, you’ll thank yourself in the long run. Recalling past wines and identifying issues are both much quicker processes, as we mentioned above. Additionally, you can whip up insightful reports — whether they’re for you, your boss, or the government — without the hassle of digging through a notebook. You might not believe us, but even the TTB’s Report of Wine Premises Operations (Form 5120.17) doesn’t have to be a headache. With the right record-keeping process, you can fill out most of the sections of your TTB reports in minutes instead of hours or days.
What Information Should Winemakers Record?
Some of these data points may not apply to your business or winemaking process, but here’s a list broken down by category to get you started:
- Harvest: All intake information, including block name, intake date, total volume of intake, weigh-ins, crushing, destemming, pressing, additives, lots, and equipment destinations.
- Fermentation and conditioning metrics: ABV (estimated and actual), attenuation, temperature (°F), Brix readings from refractometer and/or hydrometer, pH, residual sugar, malic acid (if applicable), titratable acidity, volatile acidity, free SO2, total SO2, dissolved oxygen, and cell count.
- Production tasks: Equipment splits and transfers, blending, sensory tests, additives, top offs, and aging.
- Bottling: Packaging types and quantities and related inventory used (corks, foil, bottles, etc.).
Beyond Production: The Importance of Tracking Winemaking Costs
Any item used in the production and bottling process should have its cost clearly recorded. This includes everything from grapes or bulk juice/wine purchased from other vineyards to yeast, additives, and bottling materials. Documenting the cost of each inventory item will help you and your team:
- Track ingredient costs over time
- Fully understand the costs that go into each wine lot
- Accurately calculate cost of goods sold (COGS)
- Price your wine to make your desired profit
Record-Keeping Methods for Winemakers
That’s a lot of information to keep track of. So how do business-savvy winemakers save time on arduous documentation? The key is to digitize and automate as much as possible. In reality, most winemakers rely on a combination of manual and digital methods. But the more you can move your record-keeping process away from handwritten notes, the better off you’ll be. Here are some pros and cons of different methods.
Notebooks & Paper Logs
We know many winemakers who carry their trusty notebooks in their pockets at all times. Many wine production teams use paper winemaking logs to track fermentation metrics and write down sensory notes. These are obviously the cheapest, easiest methods of record-keeping.
Paper records are the easiest to use, but they’re also the easiest to misplace and damage. If you spill something while testing or have a more serious situation like a fire or flood, those notes could be lost forever.
Not to mention, we’ve seen inside those notebooks, and usually it isn’t pretty. It can be difficult or even impossible to aggregate data into usable reports when you’re dealing with handwritten information. Doing this manually takes more time than a busy winemaker ever has. And if you want to share the information with your cellar workers, you’ll need to make physical copies or take photos, which other team members can’t add to or edit with the most up-to-date metrics or test data. Plus, let’s be honest, it can be hard to read the handwriting of someone who was hurriedly jotting something down.
In summary, paper records can work in a pinch, but they should never be the cornerstone of your record-keeping process.
The vast majority of winemakers looking to move away from paper logs will upgrade to digital spreadsheets. Common uses include wine inventory spreadsheets, winemaking logs, and wine costing spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are still cheap (free, if you’re using a program like Google Sheets), but they have the added benefits of editing and sharing. You can also more easily search for and manipulate specific data in spreadsheets to help you find what you need.
Despite their advantages over paper records, spreadsheets still have limitations. They must be manually built and maintained, which can lead to corrupted files and misplaced formulas without meticulous attention to detail. As you add more information over time, spreadsheets can become unwieldy — or you have to create dozens of them just to keep up with all of your in-progress wine lots and case goods inventory.
Spreadsheets also tie you to your computer. Because of their format, it’s difficult to edit or even view a spreadsheet on a tablet or mobile device. That leaves you with the option of either lugging a laptop around the winery with you or handwriting your notes and entering them into the computer later. While we always recommend having digital versions of your records, you probably don’t have time to document them twice.
If you want to go paperless in the winery without relying solely on manually built spreadsheets, winemaking software could be the answer. When you use a winery management software program, the data you record is tied directly to a specific wine lot and its equipment. You can quickly view completed and in-progress harvest, production, and bottling activities. And any software made specifically for winemakers will be built with your workflow in mind, so you won’t have to spend time trying to make a spreadsheet or paper log reflect your day-to-day process.
Plus, other relevant team members can view that information and be assigned tasks or work orders as needed. If the software is optimized for mobile use (which it should be), you can access and add information right on your phone or tablet as you walk through the winery each day. With one central place to track cellar information, the whole team will be on the same page.
Remember what we said at the beginning of this post about making smarter winemaking decisions? Winery software makes it easier to view notes and metrics about past years’ vintages and wine blends so you can make tweaks with the full knowledge of what you’ve done before (whether it worked or not).
Of course, adopting software will require a bigger investment of time (initially, to get set up) and money than other methods of record-keeping. But if building a brand that lasts is one of your goals, establishing proper business processes is a necessary step in the journey. Once you’ve made the switch, you’ll wonder how you ever survived on paper and pen.
Dive Deeper Into Winery Software
You already make great wine — learn how you can keep track of it better with software. Download our free buyer’s guide to winery software to compare the different types of software programs out there, get lists of questions to ask your team and potential vendors, and learn how to get your team using the software once you’ve bought it.