By Glen Martin | Mar 08, 2021
Barrels, alternative oak products, and corks
The most critical component to wine is grapes, of course. But for high-end wines, there is another necessity -- one not considered much by consumers, but a subject of obsessive thought and concern to vintners: barrels.
For premium bottlings -- premium reds, specifically -- the type of barrel used for storage greatly affects the end quality of the wine. So does "toasting": the degree and depth of char the staves are given prior to barrel assemblage. Virtually all wine barrels are made of oak. And while many if not most winemakers prefer French oak (Eastern European and American oak also are used), the barrels are often fabricated in the United States.
In California's Wine Country, one of the preferred barrel makers -- or cooperages -- is Tonnellerie Ô, a Benicia, California-based subsidiary of Cork Supply Group. The company also manufactures corks and an innovative line of alternative oak-aging products.
For winemakers, a barrel isn't just a barrel, observes Josh Trowbridge, the vice president and general manager of Tonnellerie Ô.
"Specific species of oak impart specific taste profiles to the wine," Trowbridge observes. "Actually, it's more than that -- oaks from one forest will have different characteristics than oaks of the same species from another forest. And the differences can extend even to individual trees."
Those disparities may seem a quality control problem, but they're actually more of an opportunity for perspicacious coopers to add value to their barrels.
"Premium winemakers seldom if ever buy their grapes sight unseen," says Trowbridge. "They get to know the growers. They walk the vineyards and monitor the fruit as it develops. But none of that happens with barrels -- usually, winemakers just buy them from the cooperage, and that's it. So we decided to change that."
The company launched the Master Cooper program -- a "forest-to-barrel" experience for vintners purchasing the company's highest-end barrels. "If a winemaker buys at least 12 of them, we'll send her or him on an expense-paid trip to France to see the trees that go into the barrels. They meet the guys cutting down the trees and milling the staves, and we teach them the details of the entire process. They learn how the five elements crucial to wine barrels -- provenance of the wood, grain density, seasoning [drying time of the wood after cutting], toasting and the format of the barrel -- affect the quality of the wine. At $1,800, our Master Cooper barrels aren't cheap. But when you're charging $100 or more for a bottle of wine, it's a reasonable investment. Our customers know that, and they also appreciate the hands-on experience of learning more about their barrels and what goes into them. It makes them better winemakers."
Tonnellerie Ô also sells American oak barrels. Trowbridge acknowledges many vintners prefer French oak, but he insists they're missing out. "I don't get it, really," he says. "American oak can induce different flavors, but it's actually superior for many wines. Moreover, I think it's doing a real disservice to our domestic foresters and mills. So we're promoting American oak. We want to push it to its limits. We're about to release our Revolution Barrel. It's made from Minnesota oak that has been seasoned for five years, from freezing winters to scorching summers. The flavors and aromas that have been created by that process are spectacular. And the price -- $700 compared to almost $2,000 for a Master Cooper barrel -- is going to add to the attraction. We're incredibly excited about this project."
Tonnellerie Ô's ancillary oak product line consists of short stave packages that can be inserted into large tanks, thus imparting the characteristics of oak aging without the expense of actual barrels. While not necessarily appropriate for the ultra-premium end of the market, these products can ratchet up the quality of mid-priced wines considerably, observes Trowbridge. The company also makes composite wine corks compressed from imported cork granules, customizing them with lasered logos as clients require.
Tonnellerie Ô is not immune to the challenges facing other American manufacturers -- including wage scales. But Trowbridge isn't complaining about the cost of labor. In fact, he's determined to pay his workers more.
"We love our business, and we want to run it in the U.S," he says. "We don't want to outsource anything. The advantage is that our location keeps us close to our customers. But we want to treat everyone with the same level of respect, and that means our employees as well as our customers and suppliers."
The cost of living in California is particularly worrisome for Trowbridge. "There's talk of raising the federal minimum wage from $7.50 to $15 an hour," he says. "Well, that may be fine in Texas, but Solano County isn't Texas. We recently gave our lowest-paid workers a significant raise out of appreciation for all that they do. But that's not enough. We're determined to give everyone a living wage -- and that means a wage that will let them live and prosper in the Bay Area."
Challenges: "The recent California wildfires actually had more of an impact on us than COVID. Grape quality in both California and Oregon was dramatically affected by smoke, which limited production. So many wineries dialed back on their barrel purchases," says Trowbridge. "It's wait and see at this point, though we're expecting a rebound from those customers this year."
Opportunities: New markets, says Trowbridge. "One of our biggest opportunities is our ongoing expansion into spirits, which we started about three years ago. We're providing both specialized corks and oak alternatives. Oak can add a lot of complexity to spirits, and people are discovering that."
Needs: "A good harvest," says Trowbridge. "That means a warm May and June so we'll have decent fruit set in the vineyards, and no wildfires late in summer and fall. If we get that, life will be good."