Making a Wine Barrel
When we need a bottle of fine wine, most of us know where to go. We most likely have a certain “go to” for dinner parties, the bottle that always gets rave reviews from guests. But, before it was ever bottled, it’s likely that the wine you love allotted some aging time in an oak barrel.
Finding out about the barrel making process is quite exciting. Coopering is a skill that’s acquired over time, with a master cooper having to understand each step, beginning to end. While it’s true that most barrel making locations today are largely (if not completely) machine operated, some businesses still aim to follow more traditional methods for the process.
If you’ve never seen how a barrel is prepared, you might wonder how they get the wood to flex to make the standard oval shape, or why a barrel is put over a fire when it’s being constructed. It’s an intriguing process to find out about, and here’s a quick breakdown of how it’s done.
To begin with, the wood is milled and cut into staves. Each piece is generally wider in the middle and tapered at the edges (as opposed to being blocky like a 2″ X4″). Once these staves are cut, they need time to age and fix a bit so that the flavor they impart to the wine is matured.
Once the staves are ready for use, they are installed around the inside of a metal ring, closely together at the top, and widening at the bottom (note: think of a teepee). The pieces at the top are also evened out and smoothed out to form a flat surface.
After the staves are matched around the top hoop, the barrel is placed over a fire at the wider end. The wood is moistened to prevent the barrel from catching fire, to create the smoky effect that helps flavor the barrel, and the combination of the moisture and heat makes the wood pliable.
Once pliable, the barrel is stiffened at the base, gradually bringing the staves together at the bottom and making the round oval form in the middle. As the staves are generated, another hoop is placed at the base to hold them in place and acquire the shape.
Two bungholes are cut, opposite of each other, into the sides of the barrel, and the top and bottom of the barrel are cut and fitted in, using little metal levers to get them into the grooves, snug and tight.
Once that part is equipped, the cosmetic finishing touches are all that’s left. The rings are eradicated, first one side, and then the other, to make the wood surface beautiful by sanding it down.
Once the barrel is sanded and smooth, final finishing hoops are established and the barrel maker’s symbol is stamped or etched into the bottom of the barrel. Eventually, the barrel is wrapped in plastic, ready to be shipped to wherever it’s going.
Although it may sound simple, there are a ton of steps to undergo and lots of manual labor in the process of getting a barrel from start to finish. See these two clips on YouTube if you’re interested in watching this process to see how it’s done. The first is a quick start-to-finish briefing, and the second is a longer documentary that helps you learn more about the process with commentary from a French cooper in Napa Valley.
And hey … if you want to expand your knowledge of growing grapes and enjoy tasting several varieties, call and schedule a wine tour with us today. If you’ve never experienced this type of tour on your own, we can guarantee you that it won’t disappoint!