WHAT A BOTTLER! Best Bottlers general manager, Jim Kirkpatrick, says the new owners are a great company who have plans to expand the business. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By JOHN DOOLEY

MANY people are probably unaware of Mildura’s thriving bottling industry.

Bottling plant operator ‘Best Bottlers,’ with a substantial local shareholding, has been operating here quietly for the past 16 years.

Commencing operations in 2001, the company recently announced that it had been bought out, and is now owned by Sydney-based company San Miguel Yamamura Australasia (SMYA).

SMYA combines the competencies of two highly recognised Asian brands. The first is one of South East Asia’s biggest conglomerates – the San Miguel Corporation, and the other Japan’s Nihon Yamamura Glass Company Ltd.

The new owners have big plans for the company to expand its Mildura operations and, in a strategic move, SMYA has also acquired a number of other industry-allied Australian companies including Cospak – a supplier of cartons and bottle dividers and glass product and Vinocor, a leading Australasian wine cork and cap group as well as Portavin, providing bottling services for more than 800 wineries across five sites, and Australia’s leading wine services supplier.

In addition to these, SMYA also owns Barossa Bottling in South Australia and Endeavour Glass, a bottle and container manufacturer-supplier based in New Zealand.

Best Bottlers was originally established by a group of mostly local shareholders who, recognising an opportunity in the industry, came together to set up the business.

Many of the original shareholders were former employees of Mildara Blass Wines who had left the company after Fosters Brewing acquired the winery. It was a decision that proved a good one, and would be the catalyst for the development of a major bottling industry in Sunraysia.

Born in Melbourne, Best Bottler’s general manager, Jim Kirkpatrick, grew up in Corowa on the Murray River, and is a wine industry veteran with a wealth of experience – 40 years of experience in fact – gained working for a number of major organisations, including a long stint with Lindemans at Karadoc.

“You name it, I did it. I’ve done everything really, from vineyard to cellar to laboratory and packaging, eventually becoming site manager at Lindemans,” he said. “I then went to manage Rosemount Wines in the Hunter Valley through a period of change and was then offered a position with Southcorp in Adelaide. It had been taken over by Fosters, and I managed their wineries in Australia and New Zealand.”

Mr Kirkpatrick also worked for Treasury Wines in SA, and has spent time in America. Prior to returning to Mildura to join Best Bottlers four-and-a-half years ago, he was employed by McWilliams Wines as their supply chain director.

Mr Kirkpatrick said the new owners were very positive and confident about the wine industry in Australia, which has led to the company deciding to branch out of purely packaging goods to now include bottling services.

“This is a really good company who is interested in their employees and the community, and they have an excellent corporate reputation,” he said. “I honestly think the change of ownership is a very good outcome for the company, the staff, our customers and the wider community.”

Last week the new owner’s executives visited the Mildura bottling plant to celebrate their acquisition of the company.

“We had the senior people here for an official handover ceremony where they presented us with a beautiful piece of Filipino artwork, and in return I gave them a framed montage, which featured a picture of the company’s exterior, combined with an image of the Paddle Steamer Rothbury on the Murray River,” Mr Kirkpatrick said.

“The new owners are really keen to invest in the business and see it grow, and our employees felt very reassured with what they heard from them, they thought it was very positive and a change for the better.”

Best Bottlers employs 130 people who fill a variety of casual and full-time positions, and depending on the time of year, they operate three eight-hour shifts on a 24-hour rotation.

“It gets very busy leading up to spring racing time and the Christmas-New Year periods when the sparkling wines are in peak demand. Typically from July onwards it really ramps up,” Mr Kirkpatrick said.

He said that while bottling wine was the core business, the company also bottles and packages a vast range of other products.

“We do a lot more than just bottle wine. We do cider, RTDs, spritzes, beers and kegs and we have become something of a small format specialist, which is working well for us,” he said.

Mildura is centrally located, and provides the perfect hub to ship overnight to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and anywhere in between.

The company bottles and packages more than 2.5 million cases a year, and is able to provide end-to-end solutions for their more than 70 clients, which includes everything from storage of product, bottling and packaging, through to containerised shipment to port and overseas if required.

“We are supplying product to China, and in fact, we are bottling wine for Weilong Wines who are establishing a new winery near Red Cliffs, and we have a lot of good Chinese customers,” Mr Kirkpatrick said. “We also provide product for ALDI in Germany, we have clients in the USA and other regions.”

With the facilities to bottle any size from 187ml through to 1.5 litres, Best Bottlers are capable of supplying virtually any requirement a customer may have.

“As a contract bottler, Best Bottlers are highly accredited. We need a number of different quality-accreditations to enable us to operate our business,” Mr Kirkpatrick said.

The company’s accreditations for their bottling lines are gold-standard and include hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP), ISO14001, which is the internationally-recognised standard for environmental management systems, they also hold Organic, Kosher, Water Quality Association (WQA) certification and other key certifications, International Featured Standard (IFS) Food, which is a globally recognised certification, and British Retail Consortium (BRC).

Best Bottlers also have a National Association of Testing Authorities, Australia (NATA) accredited laboratory onsite, enabling the company to do on-the-spot analysis of their customer’s product, ensuring the utmost quality standards are maintained.

BOTTLING UNDER THE RADAR

Driving past Best Bottlers premises in Cowra Avenue you’d be forgiven for thinking there isn’t much happening. 

However, once you enter the bottling plant, your eyes open up as the vast expanse of the operation greets you.

“I think a lot people think it is just a tin shed in the country, when it is far more than that,” the plant’s general manager, Jim Kirkpatrick, said.

The state-of-the-art facility comprises three bottling lines, and depending on what is be bottled,  each line can process more than 6000 bottles an hour. Amazingly, this isn’t considered super-high speed.

As we toured the plant, Mr Kirkpatrick described the various products that were being bottled and packaged into cartons.

“Given our role as a contract bottler, we need to be responsive and flexible to meet our client’s needs, regardless of what product they want us to package on our lines,” Mr Kirkpatrick said.

“The line you are looking at now, line one, is our main 750ml table wine line, which is currently putting 6500 bottles of Chardonnay an hour on the floor, packed in cartons destined for the United States,” he said.

The adjacent line was busy bottling ‘Harcourt’ cider as we walked across to the high-speed sparkling wine line that was also in full production.

With the capacity to run 200ml, 375ml, 500ml and 750ml bottles, the bottling lines can accommodate cork, plastic stopper, crown-seal and screw caps.

To see an automated bottling line in motion is quite a sight. Apart from the fact that it’s moving at high speed, it’s also performing multiple tasks ahead of the final stage of the process.

In the case of sparkling wine, initially the bottles are rinsed, then filled before having a cork inserted and the familiar six-twist, hooded-wire tied, and finally the foil neck-wrap and labels are applied to the face and neck. 

The bottles are then automatically packed into cartons, which are sealed and placed on a pallet by a robotic arm. The packaged product is then ready for immediate shipping or can be stored in the company’s more than 11,000 square metre, temperature-controlled warehouse, adjacent to the bottling plant, until distribution is required.

Throughout the process, constant monitoring takes place to ensure that all quality parameters are met, particularly in regard to filling and labelling.

The various beverages are delivered to the plant by road-tanker and are then stored in the ‘tank-farms’, INSET RIGHT, the outside version of which holds two million litres, inside they have another million litres of storage capacity.

The company also fills 25, 30 and 50-litre, non-returnable kegs, which are used in the restaurant and hospitality industry, typically for post-mix soft drink and wine products.