Waxing bottle tops at Sunset Hills

Today, I spent some time working with Nate Walsh, Sunset Hills‘ winemaker.

Even though I knew he was (about) 30, I was still taken aback when a man about my age came walking up to the counter like he lived there, and introduced himself as the winemaker.

I had been talking with a tasting room employee about a bus tour that my mom, my aunt Sharon, and my brother Ricky were planning on doing, but

His presence stopped mid-sentence. It took me a second to get myself together.

Probably because I was a embarrassed to be talking about a wine tour.

When I turned to acknowledge him, he just gestured me to go on.

So, I conjured up the most manly voice I could,

and finished my sentence in a way that concluded the conversation.

After a brief introduction, we headed down to the barrel room.


He had just recently hosted two “winemaker for a day” events, where you create your own blend,

and there were about 12 cases of wine stacked on one table,

and one 4 inch crock pot half filled with unmelted (and barely melting) wax on another table.

The goal: to cover the top of each bottle in wax.


After an attempt at patience, we realized the crock just wouldn’t do the work,

so we tried the microwave.

Better…but not good enough.

Finally, we settled with the oven to melt the wax.

Once melted, the crock kept it melted,

so we could work with it there, while we baked a new batch of wax.


There is an art to topping a bottle with wax.

Dip and swirl in a circle,

lift from the wax,

keep pointed down at a 45degree angle,

twirl fast and steady

by letting your hands crawl around the bottle like a centipede,

the wax hardens enough around the lip to create a barrier

which will let the unmelted wax settle into a pool on top.

With a final jerk twist, sweep the top toward the sky.

And there it is…

No air bubbles.

No cork showing.

And a sweet looking bottle of wine.


There was a social media conference being hosted at the vineyard,

and at around 3:30 people were showing up to prepare.

Chairs moving,

speakers set up,

tables arranged.

At around 4:30, after putting a big batch of wax in the oven,

I went down to do some bottles.

When I returned to the oven 15 mins later,

three guys in chefs hats

had claimed their territory by covering the counters with chocolate covered strawberries and cooking supplies.

I squeezed in, and asked for my oven mitts.

One chef handed three to me. I only needed two

No room to put the third anywhere…

I stuffed it in my pocket..

it’s still there. Oops!

Sorry Sunset Hills!… I’ll return it when I can.

My wax was cooked just right.

And it looked good…damn good.

So good that I snuck it away from the chefs,

so they wouldn’t dip strawberries in it.


We finished covering the bottle tops, and I was able to ask Nate a few questions I have been dying to ask.

Which brings me to…


What did I learn (in regards to vines and wines):

What kind of rootstock do they use? (European vines, like Cabernet Sauvignon, are grafted onto American vines’ roots because American vines are more resistant to disease and pests)

Two kinds at Sunset Hills:  101-14: to create less vigour in the vines.

3309: to create more vigourous vines.

VA tends to give vines a lot of vigour, which is typically undesirable, because you want the energy to go toward making the fruit, not the vegetation.

Riparia is also used in VA, but not at Sunset Hills.

How to stop fermentation to create an off-dry wine:

Refrigeration slows the process. Adding enough sulfites stops the process.

What does pruning later in winter do?

Pushes back bud-break. A major concern is frost damage. One late frost can severely diminish yields. By pruning later, the buds come out later, and you reduce the chance of frost damaging the fruit. At Sunset Hills, the last vines they prune are the ones in frost pockets.

A personal step to take

  • Plant these rootstock, so that I can practice taking cuttings, and then grafting onto those cuttings.

About ANewVine

Developing the art of making fine Maryland wine. View all posts by ANewVine

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