The business and science of wine barrels—and some price-savvy alternatives.
Few industries are more steeped in tradition than the wine business. From bud break to harvest, from fermentation to market release, each vintage follows a faithful path paved by centuries of tried-and-true methods that are only occasionally rocked by technological advances.
One golden rule of wine that’s accepted by everyone is that oak aging enhances almost every varietal, save a few (like Sauvignon Blanc) that do just fine in stainless steel.
But the means to the end varies and, in the North Bay, both traditional barrel cooperages and businesses devoted to alternative methods of “oaking” are thriving as American wine consumption increases and demand soars at all price points.
The old fashioned way
When the door to Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage swings open, it’s a heady experience. Warm, mellow oak tones waft through the air—a calming element in a space that’s a cacophony of hammers, drills and sanding machines.
General Manager Christopher Hansen walks us through the facility as coopers (barrel makers) employ traditional French methods to produce top-quality barrels from French, Eastern European and American oak to the exact standards of each winery customer.
“We have more than 1,000 customers in the United States, Canada and Mexico,” Hansen explains. “And each has its own barrel program.”
The Seguin Moreau process has survived the test of time. Oak staves are seasoned to leach out undesirable flavors and elements for two to three years. The staves are then pre-cut and shipped to Seguin Moreau in Napa from France (French and Eastern European oak) or Perryville, Mo. (American oak). A cooper, charged with raising the barrel, collects a set of staves into a collar, which forms a rosette. After the staves are shaped into place with a hammer and hoop driver, they’re placed over small oak fires in braziers, where they stay until the wood is pliable and can be bent into barrel form and then shaped by more metal hoops. A mechanical wench further tightens the barrel end, and the staves come together with no space between. It’s then moved on to the toasting phase.
The specific toast depends on the winery’s request (see sidebar below for toast characteristics). Oak chips and scraps from the production process provide the fuel for the fire (no gas or fuels that could provide “off” aromas or influence flavors are used). The entire process of bending and toasting, on average, takes between 30 to 45 minutes per barrel, depending on requested toast level.
Some of the American oak barrels then go through another step. “In American oak, we sometimes scrape a groove inside the barrel that increases the surface area. We’ve found this imparts sweeter flavors, enhances the wine’s texture and lowers tannins.” The patented process—called U-Stave—is done on American oak barrels by winery request, he says. “We tried it in the French oak, but it didn’t work as well.”
Next, the barrel ends are “crozed,” which involves cutting notches on the ends, so the head can later fit in. A bunghole is drilled in the largest stave, which has been designated as the bung stave, and the bunghole is then cauterized. The heads of the barrel are then glued in place.
“We use a dough that’s made with unbleached flour and water, which dries and effectively glues the barrel heading,” Hansen explains.
The production metal rings are then replaced by permanent metal rings, followed by a secondary pressing from the hoop press machine. Next, the barrel is partially filled with hot water and then pressurized with air so coopers can check for leaks. If they find one to two small leaks, they can be fixed with a wooden wedge or spile. Otherwise, the stave must come out and be replaced. Once the water is drained out, the barrel goes to the initial sanding machine, which finishes the surface off “like fine furniture.” Then the final hoops are placed on the barrel, and the head is sanded.
A powerful vacuum sucks the fine dust out of the building to make sure none ends up in the barrel. A quick, final sanding is followed by an individual barrel inspection, and then the barrel is wrapped, labeled and sent to a laser machine where it’s imprinted with the Seguin Moreau logo, toast level, capacity, oak type and other details (winery logos are optional). Then, off it goes to Seguin Moreau’s 45,000-square-foot warehouse in Fairfield, which handles shipping and the cooperage’s imports of fully assembled barrels from its French cooperage.
Seguin Moreau is the only North Bay cooperage that makes 500-liter as well as standard 225- and 250-liter barrels. “The larger size allows for more wine in ratio to the barrel,” Hansen says, “so less of an oak flavor is imparted.” It’s also one of the few cooperages that has a master cooper with the knowledge of creating traditional chestnut hoops. Master Cooper Douglas Rennie crafts the wooden hoops, which, Hansen says, are a favorite of several high-end wineries that want them for display purposes.
“You mostly find those types of barrels in France,” he says. “The theory, back in the old days, was that bore bugs would eat the outside wood bands before the oak.”
Because fire is critical to barrel production, Seguin Moreau coopers begin their work day at 5:30 a.m. and end it at 1:30 p.m., making work during summer months much more bearable.
While barrels are one of the most steadfast of traditions when it comes to wine, Hansen says there are distinct trends.
“In the old days, everyone was forest-specific. The forest of origin was the most important element. What I see now is a growing effort among winemakers to get consistent barrels from year-to-year with more of a focus on grain structure—the tighter the better,” he explains. This helps the wines to be more consistent so wineries can achieve a “house style” over time.
Another trend is the growing quality of American oak barrels. “There have been great improvements in sourcing and seasoning, which delivers barrels that winemakers are looking for,” Hansen says.
And the latest development is something straight out of a “CSI” show. “There’s growing interest in testing chemical components in the wood,” Hansen says, which has led to the development of Seguin Moreau’s Cadillac line: Icône Elegance.
Winemakers are also more inclined to embrace barrels assembled in the United States these days, whereas in the past they preferred imports. “Our coopers go back to France to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing: using the same wood and same toast protocol as if the barrels were made in France. It’s the same quality,” Hansen says. “Also, winemakers are more open to buying locally made barrels for several more reasons. They like to support local employment, they appreciate not having to worry about shipping and they also like the fact that our company isn’t on vacation the entire month of July, as the coopers are in France. They can order their barrels later, they like the quality and they also know that if we say the barrel is going to cost $1,000, then it will cost $1,000. They’re not at the mercy of the value of the Euro.”
How long and how much?
Many wineries use barrels for three vintages (roughly five to six years), after which they’re replaced (unless you “ReCoop,” see below). “The first year, you get 50 percent oak flavor. The second and third vintages, you get 25 percent oak flavor. After three vintages, you have a ‘neutral’ barrel that’s simply a holding container,” Hansen says.
“Winemakers vary their new, old and neutral barrels in percentages, based on what’s best for their individual wines,” he explains.
The cost is steep. American barrels begin at $475, Eastern European at $800 and French oak rings in at a starting price of $1,000.
“Barrels are expensive,” Hansen agrees. “You can’t sell a wine for less than $15 without using oak alternatives. I’ve seen tremendous growth in that field over the last four to five years. And it’s a good solution for those who want to get French oak at a much lower cost."
The alternative lifestyle
That brings us to StaVin, a Marin-based company that’s been making barrel alternatives for the wine industry for nearly 25 years in a private Sonoma County location. Alan Sullivan and his brother, Steve, founded the company in 1990, and Alan serves as the company president today.
“We’re the innovators,” says Alan. “My brother likes to say we’re the R & D [research and development] for all our competitors. And it’s true.”
The name StaVin can be explained two ways, he says. “Staves in a tank, or barrel staves used in vinification, hence StaVin.”
It’s worthy to note that, while StaVin is best known for its fire-toasted barrel alternatives, it also offers additional toasting methods using large convection ovens. The benefit of this, says Sullivan, is that winemakers can use all the toasting varieties StaVin offers to create their own proprietary flavor profiles for their wines.“If you look at the interior square footage of a barrel, 25 percent of it includes the barrelhead surfaces. Heating that portion [in the convection oven] makes a major difference in adding complexity to a wine.”
When it comes to the heart of its business—barrel alternatives—StaVin has strict quality control practices that mirror those in traditional cooperages.“Seasoning is extremely important. We season for a minimum of three years [just like the traditional cooperages],” Sullivan says. “It’s paramount to delivering the highest-quality flavor profile in our products. It actually increases the concentration of aromatic compounds in the oak.”
The barrel alternative products StaVin manufactures are inserted in stainless steel tanks (fans, segments and beans) or inserted in neutral oak barrels to extend barrel life (barrel replicas and inserts). The price is significantly less (85 percent to 90 percent less expensive than using barrels) and flavors can be more easily controlled. There’s also the added benefit of a smaller carbon footprint. The average oak tree only makes five barrels. StaVin will yield more than 400 barrels worth of oak fans, segments and beans from the same tree.
Using oak alternatives is relatively simple. StaVin’s fan packs are attached to the sidewall of stainless steel tanks. One 44-square-foot pack (comprised of 36-by-2-inch staves) can oak up 180 gallons of wine at a full 100 percent oak—the equivalent of three barrels. There are multiple ways to install them: free floating, which minimizes production of lees, or above the tank floor to allow for lees stirring.
“They’re versatile. The winemaker can blend multiple toasting protocols while dosing in the exact amount of oak for a specific lot of wine,” Sullivan says.
Segments are smaller oak pieces (2-by-2 inches) and are packaged in a food-grade nylon bag. This geometric size allows for faster oak extraction, which helps wineries get their wines to market when they need it.
StaVin’s Oak Beans (trademarked) work slightly faster than the segments and can be used in red wine fermentation to stabilize color and cross-link tannins. The beans are 3/8-inch cubes that come in 20-pound bags. StaVin works with winemakers to create additional sizes to customize their particular wine lot.
Wineries with large inventories of neutral barrels can also benefit from StaVin’s barrel insert product line (traditional insert, replica or infusion tube).
“If a winemaker has a nice, good oak barrel he or she wants to rejuvenate, we have a product called barrel replica,” Sullivan says. Barrel replicas, basically, consist of 10 connected oak mini-staves that are inserted through the bunghole (that number can be customized). Each section represents 10 percent new oak, so the winemaker can choose the amount he or she wants.
Another barrel rejuvenation product is StaVin’s barrel insert, which requires that a cooper remove the barrelhead and insert two-stave sections on either side of the bunghole. The insert leaves the bottom of the barrel open to accommodate a sur lies program.
Keeping wineries in business
StaVin’s products are helping many in the wine business by offering viable alternatives to traditional barrels. “We’re lowering winery production costs. If you’re charging $50 or more for your wine, you can use new barrels every year. If you’re selling your wine for anything less, you might need to be creative about keeping your winery more profitable. It doesn’t help anyone if you go out of business,” Sullivan asserts.
“Our mission is to give wineries a viable alternative to barrels, which help create wines that taste as if they were made in the best barrels. We approach it from a winemaker’s point of view. We have to be able to give the winemaker exactly what he or she wants, whether it’s peach, honey, graham cracker or crème brulée flavors. Our job is to know what we need to do to the oak to deliver just that,” Sullivan says. “Winemakers, after all, can be brutal.”
Barrels will always be a part of the wine industry, Sullivan admits. “But so will barrel alternatives. And no one really cares so long as the wine is good. In the end, the question is, ‘Does the consumer love the wine and do they keep coming back?’
“That,” he says, “is the real bottom line.” Barrel or no barrel.
Wine barrels, due to their expense, are one of the bigger investments a winery makes. And since a barrel only imparts oak flavors for three vintages before it becomes neutral, it means many wineries treat it as a disposable asset.
But there is a way to recoup those costs. You can “recoop” the barrel—and that’s just what ReCoop Barrels in Sebastopol has been doing for more than 3,000 wineries over the last 27 years.
According to Lori Marie Adams, ReCoop’s director of business operations, ReCoop has the capacity to recondition 40 barrels per day, and its clientele has been growing in recent years as more wineries and other businesses join the green movement and are becoming more aware of ways they can lower production costs using an affordable, green alternative to a new barrel.
ReCoop is strict about the barrels it reconditions. ReCoop hand picks the best barrels from premier wineries that follow proven barrel maintenance programs and it adheres to stringent guidelines to ensure sanitation is preserved.
The process is relatively simple but requires specially engineered machines. The heads are popped off and the barrel is put on a cutter that planes the inside of the barrel, removing slightly more than a quarter-inch of the interior oak (which is the depth the previous wine penetrates in the barrel) with the grain—no cross cut—to achieve the utmost flavor from the oak and optimize the oxygenation benefits. The barrel is then hydrated and toasted, using convection ovens or traditional fire, depending on customer preference. Heads are reattached and the barrel is ready for action once more.
“It’s an alternative to purchasing new barrels,” Adams says. “But it’s not for everyone. Barrel quality is critical to the final outcome. I will say that the people I’ve convinced to try our barrels notice that it helps offset their production costs while letting them make good wine, which pleases them. And I’m proud to say we’ve had a lot of gold and double gold medal winners come from barrels we’ve recooped.”
ReCoop sells the barrels it purchases and remanufactures for $300. It also will recondition barrels its clients bring in for a $200 fee. And wineries aren’t its only customers.
“We’re selling a lot of our barrels to distilleries and breweries to make whisky, bourbon, gin, vodka and beer,” Adams says.
Convincing wine traditionalists to give an old barrel new life is sometimes hard, Adams says, but she notes that the younger generation just entering the business is much more open to the sustainable approach. To help them out and get them started, she frequently “cuts them a deal to help them get going. It gives them the opportunity to make good wine and be competitive, while keeping their costs down,” she says.
“Our motto is ‘ReThink, ReUse and ReCoop,’” notes Adams, “and we’ve been around for 27 years. During that time, we figure we’ve reconditioned more than 300,000 wine barrels. We must be doing something right.”
Different types of oak barrels and toasting styles impart unique flavors to different varietals, and no one is more aware of that than Dan Goldfield, winemaker and partner at Dutton-Goldfield Winery, located in Sebastopol.
Goldfield, who’s best known as a master of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, notes that no grape is more sensitive than Pinot Noir, and even though he gave American oak barrels a try many years ago, it’s French oak all the way at Dutton-Goldfield. “Almost all of our barrels are imported from France,” he says.
Goldfield and his partner, Steve Dutton, purchase 35 to 40 percent new barrels each year, use them for three vintages and then sell them. “If we’re in growth mode, we’ll hang on to them a couple more years,” Goldfield says. But by year six, he’s done with them.
Oak integrity and flavor consistency are the two traits most important to him. “The biggest screw up is to buy 50 barrels and have them not be the same flavor. The potential for variation is tremendous. That’s why I go with companies I trust—those with long-term quality control in their cooperages.”
His favorites? Remond for Dutton-Goldfield’s Emerald Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir and Seguin Moreau’s Icône barrels for his Devil’s Gulch Vineyard Pinot. He’s also a big fan of Taransaud.
The majority of the Dutton-Goldfield portfolio—which includes Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Syrah and Riesling in addition to its signature Pinot Noirs—is single-vineyard wines. Goldfield says there’s no way to know how to make a wine from a particular vineyard “until you’ve done it for 10 years and gone through all the ups and downs.” One of the ways he coaxes each different vineyard designate to its ultimate flavor is to carefully match barrel spices to the fruit. “We have a favorite barrel style for each of our single vineyard wines,” he says.
With a bit of pride, Goldfield admits to being a barrel snob: “Because of the price point of our wines, we’re very picky about the wood. We don’t want to make any compromises to increase margins, because it’s all about the quality of the wines.”
And Now for a Toast
The level to which a barrel is toasted plays a critical role in the final taste and texture of the wine. Here’s how the professionals match the wine to the toast, compliments of Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage.
Light: Mineral and milder wood aromas, reduced vanilla components and fresher flavors. Best for wines requiring limited aroma enhancement and wines that benefit from increased tannins.
Medium: Complex and toasty aromas of vanilla, coffee and freshly baked bread. Round, sweet oak flavors that have notes of spice, butterscotch, caramel and chocolate. Ideal for most wines.
Medium Open: Much like Medium, but with less intense aromas. Flavors are like Medium. Suitable for wines that are less intense with more fresh fruit tones.
Medium Long: Also called Burgundy Style. More minerality and delicate toasted aromas—vanilla, brioche and white nougat. Softer flavor structure with low concentration of tannins. Used for wines that are complex, but preserves finesse of grape varieties. Best for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and lighter red wines.
Medium Plus: Highly complex aromas—maximum of aromas achievable through toasting. Spices, vanilla bean, roasted nuts, coffee, toffee, chocolate and mocha. The flavors are full and tannins are well-integrated. Best suited for fuller-flavored wines with highly concentrated aromas.
Medium Long Tradition: Another Burgundy Style. Toasty aromas of caramel, cocoa and candied fruit. Provides volume, sweetness and length on the palate, while maintaining a fresh impact. Excellent for barrel fermenting and aging fine white wine sur lies.
Heavy: Smoky aromas with notes of black pepper and espresso. Smoky coffee with a reduction in sweet roasted flavors. Best for a full-impact wine with complex aromas and a lesser tannin structure.
Located at 1410 Neotomas Ave. in Santa Rosa,NorthBay biz magazine is a monthly business-to-business publication covering Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties. This year, the magazine is celebrating 43 years of continuous operation. It originally hit the stands in 1975, when it was called Sonoma Business, and only covered Sonoma County. Norm and Joni Rosinski and John Dennis, acquired it in 2000 and changed its name to cover an expanded market. Today, the magazine is part of Amaturo Sonoma Media Group. More here..