Business Review May 2011

Napa Valley Cooperage

In our own backyard… “The art of barrel-making”

I’ve seen them around; everywhere. I’ve seen them as planters for an array of front yard color. I’ve seen them as stand-alone, yard art. I’ve even seen them used as indoor and outdoor tables. And, I’ve seen them used to hold wound-up garden hoses.

My favorite use for them is the reason for which they were originally made; aging and fermenting wine. Welcome the wine barrels.

I was recently wondering where these beautifully crafted, oak barrels, held together by a metal bracelet, originated and where they were made. There are many uses for these finely crafted drums after the intended use, and they seem to endure for years. So I headed on a journey to find out the history of these casks, which led me right back here, in our own backyard.
I recently met with Mark Heinemann at a local coopeage to venture into a craft that is as old as the making of wine. The cooperage of my visit was Demptos, located on Skaggs Island Road in the southern end of our valley.

Mark asked me to arrive at an early 8:00 AM. The art of barrel-making, he explained, begins at 5:30 AM each day.  It was there that I learned the effect of the barrel on the taste of the divine juice that develops inside. The journey of the grapes, from harvesting to consumption, is an eventful one, with the respite in the wooden barrels possibly being the coziest. I couldn’t help but wonder how these came to be.

When I entered the cooperage building, all of my senses were awakened. The building was dimly lit with flickers of daylight and shimmers from roasting fires illuminating the rows of neatly aligned barrels set in areas assigned to their designated stage of assemblage. A rush of wood scent greeted me in the vastness of the building. I was yet to realize that each smell and color adds to the work of the craftsmen, each of whom were working with meticulous speed and dexterity. Every step was as important as the next.

To make the best apple pie, use the best apples. To make the best wine, use the best grapes. To make the best barrels, use the best wood. It is on this premise that the barrels are made. For years, due to the quality of oaks grown there, the vats were made in France. Mark explained  that thee oak we grow in California is too porous for barrel making. Therefore, here in the United States, the best wood available is a less porous, Missouri white oak. This tree grows slowly in thin, rocky soil, and it is this slow growing that creates the tightest grain, a very desirable asset for barrels. Most trees used for oak barrels range in age from 160 to 250 years old. The wood is split in a manner to maximize the grain, with only the best wood with straightest grain being used. “Only about 4 percent of the wood is used,” explained Heinemann. The rest is sold. Additionally, Mark explained, natural air drying in a humid environment is key to the perfect barrel. The oak used at Demptos is aged outside, in the humid climate of Missouri,  which allows more tannin to be leeched from the wood. And, that leeching results in a softer flavor of wine. Finer grained oak is more porous, which in turn has an impact on the aroma and taste, allowing for a more constant, softer sweeter taste of wine.  Recently, a local winemaker explained that some woods used in her winemaking created a cinnamon flavoring while others produced a more oakey and blackberry flavoring. The wood of choice plays an intricate part in the aging phenomena of wines. Choosing that wood is something a cooper takes seriously. The cooper constantly thinks about the quality, the shape and the nature of the wood. He pays attention to the straight grain of wood which will provide barrels with solidity, flexibility and imperviousness; a talent or an instinct on the cooper’s part. There is still another useful step to change the aromatic contour of the oak, thus the wine.

In addition to the three-year drying process, “toasting” the barrel plays an essential part in the delicate flavors of the wine produced in barrels. As I meandered through the local cooperage located at the entrance to our valley, the smell brought back memories of that first fireplace fire of the winter and of the campfire of summertime camping. That scent of burning oak fires permeated the interior of the building. Glancing about, I could see scores of small oak-wood fires gently burning within the rounds of the would-be casks. A cooper in charge of banding the barrels had anchored the wood planks on one edge of the cylinder and the objects were strategically placed over the flames. This practice allowed for  continued dying and, later,  toasting of the inside of the barrel. Drying is about a 20 minute process. The length of time for toasting is about 40 minutes, depending on the specifications of the vintner. For Demptos, the round heads of the staves are also toasted and then placed into position. The heads are put together with strips of tule reed between each stave to ensure a tight, leak-proof fit. All of which leads to that perfect flavor of our Valley’s favorite beverage by destroying the overbearing aromas of green oak. Before being sanded to a silky soft finish and, while still covered in dust, the barrel is dressed with hoops, holding it together in a most traditional manner.

The galvanized steel bands are hand-fit onto the barrel. These hoops are gently tapped into place, with the cooper being sure-handed not to touch the barrel. They are then stamped with two rivets that close the steel belts. Depending on their location on the barrel, each hoop is named; bilge, headings and chime hoops all encase the barrel. The barrel is nearing completion.

Tradition is essential in the finishing of the product. The meticulousness required for this assembly process affords a beautiful product worthy of any wine cellar. The cooper’s craft is enhanced with the grooming of the cask. Demptos acquires this silky soft finish by using machinery that reminded me of the shining and buffing received by the Tin Man at the Emerald City. All traces of unevenness are removed from the barrel’s surface. This complete process takes a full day and, at Demptos Cooperage, the artisans produce 100 barrels a day.

Each stage of the barrel-making requires adeptness and precision, producing an aesthetic product used for multiple purposes throughout its lifespan. Now, when I see these casks in the community, whether in a garden holding flowers, on the patio as a table, or in a wine cellar of distinction, I will have a new appreciation for the making of this piece that holds both history and craftsmanship.

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