Cooperage Is Space and Spice
By Doug Fabbioli
When I worked in the wine cellars of Sonoma, California a few decades ago, much of my time was spent with the barrels. I was purchasing over 2000 barrels each year, both new and used, for our wines at Buena Vista Winery. I got to know the coopers, the other winemakers, and the wines they aged in those barrels. I learned about the oaks used, the toasting and charring, and more. I don’t buy nearly as many barrels these days but that experience has not left me. With the expansion of the craft beverage industry, many folks have reached out to me about getting some used barrels for their projects which means there are a handful of uses other than wine that I have had a hand in lately.
There are a number of good reasons to re-use wine barrels for other spirits. The barrel will impart the flavor of what was in it before, especially if I do not wash out the barrel. This is the preferred method for these folks, as the wine characteristics left in the barrel are what they are looking for. The wood of the barrel will add its own set of flavor notes, and these can be different based on where the barrel wood was grown, the aging of the wood before being made into a barrel, the toasting process used and the level of that toast, and how many times the barrel has been used. Another aspect of barrel-aging a product is the slow, low-level oxygen that is imparted into the wine through the pores of the wood. The barrel does not leak, but it does breathe. As the barrels sit, the air slowly goes in and a touch of wine evaporates out giving the barrel room a unique and pleasant smell.
The used barrels from our Raspberry Merlot are always in high demand. A few of our neighboring brewers have used them for aging sours, as the acidity and strong fruit character from the raspberries can easily complement this style of beer. Our local distillery has requested them for their program too—I believe he mentioned aging some rum in them.
A local coffee roaster has asked for barrels from me this year. Aging raw coffee beans in a wine barrel was a new idea for me, although I certainly enjoy a good cup of coffee in the morning and appreciate the craftsmanship involved in producing a quality product. We talked through the procedure and the goals they were hoping to achieve, and tasted a number of brews that express the different styles that define those goals. Toast levels, tannin structures, aging, acids, lingering finishes, creamy textures… it’s almost like making wine!
I have another barrel project that’s going in the other direction. A new restaurant in town is working with me to create a custom wine blend for their opening. They had a bourbon custom-made for them previously, which was aged in a classic bourbon barrel. We put their custom wine into this bourbon barrel to finish.
Over the years, one method I have used to create consistency in our wines is defining what barrels will be used with which wine and for how long. These other crafters are now trying new things, playing off of my craft to create something new. Artistry at its finest!
Is there anything more old-world than aging in barrels? Yes, barrels are expensive and the barrel aging takes time to show results, but the barrel itself goes back centuries without a whole lot of change to the basic structure. With all the new technology in the world these days, it is very grounding to work with products and styles that have been long proven and improved throughout our civilization. And it is exciting to see the new ideas and products being made using that age-old knowledge. New stuff based on old stuff!