Practical Winery
58-D Paul Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903-2054
phone:415/479-5819 · fax:415/492-9325

January/February 2003

BY Henry Work
Winemakers who ponder the question “What is best for the wine?” usually find themselves addressing a second question: “What can we afford?” Answering this second question often involves a series of trade-offs in the vineyard or cellar, as winemakers strike their own unique balance between quality and affordability.

With cooperage selection high on the list of most winemakers’ quality tools, how can you minimize your expenditures in this vital area while still meeting your quality goals? Here are some tips.

“ABCs” of barrel alternatives

The oaks of Eastern Europe are the same species as in France – Quercus sessilis and Q. pendunculata (reputedly sub-species of Q. robur). Q. petraea and Q. robur grow in Hungary and are the same species as in France. Admittedly the terroir is slightly different, but given the other variables of air-drying and toasting, the differences I have experienced in blind tastings are negligible. Purchased from reputable cooperage houses — and yes, there are many — barrels made from Eastern European oak will cost $50 to $150 less than those from French oak, while still providing elegance and complexity.

There are also barrels made from blends of French, Eastern European, and American oaks, in various combinations, which are less expensive than barrels of pure French oak.

If French oak is beyond the cost category for a particular wine, consider reducing the number of French oak barrels and substitute some three-year air-dried American oak. That extra year outside in the elements softens the American oak tannins. The wood shows nicely without the need for the heavier toast levels or for the heads to be toasted. And the less aggressive wood flavors allow the wine’s fruit to show through.

Also, high quality, not totally extracted, used barrels are available today, since some ultra-premium wineries use French oak barrels for only one or two vintages. The barrels are resold at between 50% to 75% of their original price — quite a savings, especially if they have been used only six months for Chardonnay. Look for these barrels in trade journal ads and various online exchange sites.

Inserts, cubes, beans, and chips

Refurbishing existing barrels has proven to be a solid cost-saver. Putting oak inserts into the barrels seems to provide more complexity than shaving barrels or the use of chips. The inserts are available in French, Eastern European, and American oak. Several brands offer wood air-dried a full two years and thoroughly toasted. While the inserts placed into a barrel through the bung hole are less expensive and easier to deal with, they provide only one-third to one-half the surface area of the style inserted by removing a head.

Another alternative is the use of oak inserts in tanks. Special fittings are usually welded to the tank walls, but once in place, the fittings remain as inserts are replaced. While the installation of the inserts into their framework is somewhat laborious, it can be done by the cellar crew, and can then be used to add oak flavor to large amounts of wine.

The price point for some wines can’t justify the use of cooperage, but the wine benefits by the taste of oak. There are many good chip (and chip-type) products on the market. Made with well-aged wood, thoroughly toasted, and relatively inexpensive to purchase and use, they add a depth of character and oak flavor to wines. These products can be added to the grape receiving hopper, into the tank before fermentation, into storage tanks, after fermentation, or into older barrels via stainless steel sleeves placed through bung holes.

A word of caution when using the chip products: consider your pump and wine-moving systems before dumping chips into the fermentor. The large diameter or long, splinter-like chips may clog a pump or damage rubber gaskets. Test your system with the various oak alternatives that you are interested in using before you get into the middle of harvest.

Another new technology for cost-cutting the barrel part of winemaking is the use of micro-oxygenation — adding minute amounts of oxygen into a tank of wine at a very precise rate. The cost factors of the oxygen generator, diffuser, staff training, and support services are far less than the equivalent tank capacity in French oak barrels. Running the system takes much less time than racking and topping barrels. Used in conjunction with oak chips or inserts in a tank of wine, taste character can approach that of barrel-aged wine.

Use of micro-ox to supply O2 to wine does require the careful attention of the winemaker as input needs are different for each variety and style. A new use of the micro-ox system has been to introduce O2 to wine in barrels in precise amounts and thereby eliminate the routine racking regimes. While this system does not eliminate the cost for barrels, it may reduce a significant amount of cellar labor.

Other tricks of the trade

  • Order and take your barrels in the off-season (March to June). Typically, most wineries want their new barrels in late summer for barrel fermentation, and early fall for use with red wines. It is the northern hemisphere wineries —with their insatiable demand for cooperage bunched into this small window — who create problems for the cooperage houses. Producers simply cannot make all the required barrels during these critical periods. They end up making barrels year-round and storing them, and are thus generally willing to discount barrels from March to June in order to keep storage costs down.
  • Consolidate orders with other wineries or groups. Most cooperages operate on the premise of discounts based upon quantity. If you can get together with your neighbors to all order from the same cooperage house, you may qualify for a discounted price. But don’t expect a discount if everyone is ordering different styles and toasts.
  • Explore volume discounts. For large wineries, buying from fewer barrel producers may qualify you for discounts. While a diverse selection of cooperage helps to provide complexity in the oak flavors, ordering from 30 or 40 brands of cooperage probably leads only to migraines for the winemaker, accountant, or cellar master who is charged with tracking them.
  • Stay with basic styles. The standard oak barrels are the 225-liter Bordeaux or 228-liter Burgundian export style. Anything beyond that takes more time and effort to make. So, if you want to keep cooperage costs down, stay with these basic styles, and don’t ask for exotic woods, toast levels, or other barrel styles.
    The exception to this is the 200-liter bourbon style; these barrels do cost less, but only from the few cooperages that make this size. The disadvantage to the 200-liter style is the lack of chime, which makes holding and moving the barrel difficult, and the often rough finish, which tends to wear holes in the cellar worker’s pants.
  • Go large. Where practical, purchase larger size barrels, which cost less per liter. E&J Gallo Winery developed the 265-liter barrel to maximize their gallonage within their warehouse, while still being able to utilize standard metal barrel pallets. This barrel is now made by a number of cooperage houses. It is 40 liters larger than the standard barrel, while using essentially the same floor space. Australia and China favor 300- and 400-liter barrels, and there are also puncheons (500 liter barrels) available. All of these maximize space and capacity with lower cost per liter.
  • Mesh with your standard. Seek cooperage suppliers whose “standard” barrel is what you want, not a cooperage where your request becomes a “special order.” If you do have a special need in your wine barrels, try to find the cooperage that normally makes that barrel. Even if you have to work with them to “fine tune” it to your specifications, it will usually cost less than asking another cooperage to make it. This is especially true if it requires new or different equipment for the cooperage.
  • Take direct delivery. When possible, have barrels delivered directly to the winery via the shipping truck or container; this reduces warehouse and delivery costs and minimizes handling (and damage). Going through a warehouse or using local trucking can add between $5 and $20 to the cost of each barrel.
  • Reduce packaging. Packaging costs money and needs to be recycled or, unfortunately, disposed of. Ask for less wrapping and packaging and ask the cooperage to pass its savings on to you.
  • Consider leasing. While leasing barrels normally costs a bit more in the long run, the reduced out-of-pocket expense, often coming just after bottling and during harvest, may justify this alternative. Check with your accountant for advantages and disadvantages for your particular situation.
  • Negotiate! Last, don’t be shy about negotiating. Barrels are in good supply, and most cooperages are well stocked with aged wood. And they want your business. For an order of significant quantity and prompt payment, they may be willing to give you a bargain.

  • For questions to author, contact:
    Henry Work, Consultant
    3190 Highway 128
    Calistoga, CA 94515, USA
    tel: 707-478-2834; Fax: 707-942-4688