The old and modern art of the cooper

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We’ve just put together our annual barrel edition at the magazine and that meant I’ve been getting in touch with several different coopers, talking about the barrel market and also digging through my cooperages photos. If you’re curious about the wine barrel market, some interesting trends I reported on is that American oak barrels are getting much more expensive because of the surging popularity of Bourbon and other whiskeys that age in American oak barrels. This is quite a change for the wine industry as American oak barrels have traditionally always been a cheaper alternative to French oak barrels.

In going over some of my photos I’m reminded how cool it is to visit a cooperage. After entering the workshop, the first thing you’ll notice is the wonderful smell of toasty smoke that’s tinged with scents of vanilla, a bit of baked bread and whiskey. While there are several areas of the production process that have been modernized with machinery, many elements of barrel making require the work of skilled craftsmen. There are tools and tasks of a modern barrel workshop that are the same as they were 300 or 400 years ago.

Last year I had a chance to tour the Nadalie USA cooperage in Calistoga. It’s one of several cooperages I’ve visited, and it’s a good example of how barrel making is still in many places a combination of machine precision and craftsmanship.

The Nadalies are a French family that has been making barrels for three generations. They were one of the first French cooperages to set up shop in the U.S. back in the 70s. The company produces both French and American barrels and make all of their American oak barrels in Calistoga. The American oak wood is from forests in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Missouri and Virginia and I believe the company’s log mill and aging yard is in Pennsylvania.

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Here’s an image of a rough stave to the left and one that’s been milled. The wood used for barrels is left outside in large stacks and aged for two to three years in the elements. The rain, wind, sun and other weather ages and softens the wood to make it optimal for use in a barrel. Without aging the wood would be too harsh and “green” and an unpleasant match for wine. Once the wood is ready to be assembled into barrels, the staves are stripped of the weathered exterior and also gently shaped into a stave.

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All the staves are laid out on a table and then a worker places them within a barrel hoop and bangs them into place. The constant banging of mallets along with the smoke and flame of the toasting process help give the workshop that antiquated feel.

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The end or the “head” of the barrel is assembled with smaller staves.

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After the staves have been set within the hoops the barrels are placed over small braziers for toasting. Many coopers now control the temperature and flames of the fires with computers, but at the Nadalie cooperage they rely on the skilled eye and touch of their staff to know exactly when to move the barrel off the flame, lower the heat or add more oak wood to increase the temperature. The length and degree of toasting changes the flavor profile of a barrel. A barrel with a dark toast can add notes of chocolate, burnt sugar, bread and mocha while a lighter toast provides subtle oak flavors and can give the wine more structure.

100_1794Once toasted, the barrel undergoes final assembly. Here a worker is toasting the bunghole of the barrel. You can see in this photo to the left the black smoke getting sucked up into the gas hood. Drilling the bunghole exposes raw wood that needs to be toasted before the barrel is shipped to a winery.

Despite all the advances in barrel alternative products like wood chips and blocks, demand for new wine barrels is stronger than ever. It’s not just wine and whiskey, many brewers are also aging or fermenting beer in barrels as well. Being in a workshop like Nadalie’s, I was reminded of the workshops in Europe that produce classical music instruments. There’s an elegant timelessness in the production of something so simple yet that still has the profound facility to elevate a creative art be it music or winemaking.

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