Vineyard & Winery Management

January - February 2012

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WINERY By Gary Werner, Northwest correspondent Standard Deviation BARREL SPECIFICATIONS ARE DEFINED AND DIFFERENTIATED BY HOUSE RULES mproving consistency is a per- vasive goal for the wine indus- try. Markets demand reliable replication from wineries, so wineries demand the same from their suppliers. We depend on scientific research and technical innovation to give us better tanks, pumps, bottles and closures. Then benchmarking and the pursuit of best practices deliver us more exacting uniformity within most of these supply categories. So how do barrel producers defy the virtual interchangeability that characterizes many other winery inputs? Coopers obtain wood from the same sources and employ the same tools and techniques, but their handiwork remains remarkably distinct. Medium-grained French oak barrels with medium toast from one cooperage will yield a notably different wine than barrels pro- duced to the very same specifica- tion by another cooperage. "Yes, all barrels display a certain house style," said Martin McCar- thy, sales and marketing manager at Radoux USA in Santa Rosa, Calif. "Part of it reflects coopering as a craft. But there's also the reality of few industry-wide standards. As an example, I've seen barrels labeled 38 VINEYARD & WINERY MANAGEMENT JAN - FEB 2012 tight grain that I would not call tight grain." "It's not just grain," said Mark Heinemann, the North American market manager at Demptos Napa Cooperage. "The same is true for toasting and for the initial sea- soning of the wood. It's the entire package of specifications. They are defined by the cooper, and so they distinguish us stylistically." They also run contrary to the very fixed standards expected for everything from refractometers to glassware racks. And they raise questions: Which factors really determine the house style of a coo- perage? How much do specifica- tions for these factors vary across the industry? What do these devia- tions mean to wineries? MORE THAN DRY "The first variable determining house style is how you age the wood. That's really the founda- tion," said McCarthy. Note that he said "how" versus "how long." The way oak is seasoned in the stave yard over two or three years is crucial to the character of the finished barrels. He explained, "I think everyone sprinkles water over stave wood right after they rough- saw. The process of air-drying actu- ally requires water. Otherwise the ends of the staves will cauterize and internal moisture will not draw out. You'll then end up with crack- ing or breaking staves later in the process." He i n ema n n a g r e e d a n d explained more – including points of difference. "Natural air-drying is essential. It develops the staves in AT A GLANCE Cooperage industry standards are really a spectrum of in-house specifications. Appropriate seasoning or air-dry- ing significantly influences barrel character. Metrics for grain terms such as "tight" or "medium" vary across the industry. Toasting profile monikers such as "light" or "heavy" do not have uniform meanings. Barrel production is a true craft, and therefore includes elements of the indefinable. WWW.VWM-ONLINE.COM

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