Thursday, March 16, 2006

The party's over? Where'd the barrels go?

So, with all the oak barrels in California, where do they all end up when the party's over?

Generally speaking, oak barrels are used for 5~7 years and then decomissioned. Most wineries infuse their inventory with a certain percentage of new oak barrels every year to keep the 'house style' oak signature. Those percentages vary widely and depend upon the winemaker, market demands, grape varietal, etc.
Those old barrels are sold off to various companies which then convert them into the same half-barrel planters you might see at your local Longs Drug Store, Lowe's, Home Depot, or Wal-Mart Store (see
Barrels Unlimited).

There's even a company in Napa which slices & dices the barrels into chips & pieces for use on your home grill. Some of the chips are further soaked in wine to give them even more aroma when they're heated up, aroma which is imparted to the food along with the oak smoke & aromas.
I say further soaked, or more accurately re-soaked, because up to 1 gallon of wine from when the barrel was being used would have permeated the wood and been "stuck" in the barrel...this is yet another reason the prices for wines which have been oak aged are higher.
(Some notable reasons as to why this is the case:
  1. the cost of the barrel must be passed on,
  2. there are losses due to evaporation which drive your costs up,
  3. there is some wine which is absorbed into the wood and cannot be recovered,
  4. more labor is involved keeping the barrels clean than would be involved with just using a stainless steel tank
  5. more labor is involved in moving barrels around and the supporting racks, bungs, and other equipment needed [like forklifts, propane & batteries for them], etc.)
Now using barrels to ferment/age your wines imparts many different aromas, and provides a somewhat unique profile to your wine: a profile which can't really be duplicated by chips or staves (thought they can sometimes provide a nice alternative, and the cost of producing those wines drops quite a bit from not having to deal with the 5 points above).
(I'll save the discussions of various cooperage houses, oak source (French vs. American), stave aging, etc, for another post as that's just too long for this space...and those topics deserve attention in their own right.)

So how do you know if your wine has been in barrels? If you're not familiar with the producer, you might look for the term "Barrel Fermented" or "Barrel Aged" on the labels - though there are some who don't advertise that. If you're seeing a wine for $7 or under, chances are that it's probably seen alternative oak treatments where oak is used, as barrels will add more to the cost of the bottle. And that's NOT to say that all wines which cost more spend time in oak barrels, but as a generality it holds fairly true.

As for those barrels at the hardware store, be prepared to find them cut into many different shapes & sizes - even furniture (check Google or ebay for those).

My favorite use for old barrels is in the fireplace or grill. Plus living in the wine country, the costs I see per barrel (used from various wineries direct) are much lower than you might see in other parts of the country.

Time to curl up with a nice Tawny Port!

2 Comments:

Blogger Lynne said...

Hi! I'm a winemaker that is interested in doing seasonal work in India. I was just wondering if you could tell me which month(s) are generally the harvest/vintage season?

June 01, 2007 5:17 PM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

Lynne,
An interesting topic worthy of its own entry for a reply:
http://zinquisition.blogspot.com/2007/06/indias-harvest-season.html

Good luck if you go & give us a few updates of what you find there for an entry or two!
V

June 04, 2007 12:26 PM  

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