Thursday, January 29, 2009
Wineries have personalities! Even before you enter the tasting room you have an idea of what to expect from your winery visit. The first impression, either from a web-visit or the drive up the lane to the tasting room, informs your opinion and frequently the experience you ultimately have. And like the wine they produce, many of the personalities in the tasting room we encounter are complex -- that is to say, some tasting room attendants are inviting, friendly and warm, while others are aloof, snobby, and uneducated.
When I visit a winery, my expectations are geared toward meeting the winemaker, having a personal tour, getting the low-down on varietals (do they grow their own grapes?) and getting excellent personal service. So, when I encounter tasting room attendants who know far less than I do, I become quickly frustrated and frequently leave vowing never to return. Actually, that happened within the past year.
We had visited an up-and-coming winery (with all the appropriate bells and whistles), beautiful by all accounts; however, upon entering we were met with smugness and an air of superiority and although the wines were good - we did not purchase. I vowed never to return. Of course I did return and am glad I did. This time, about a year later, they had the most marvelous tasting room attendant: knowledgeable of the wine and winemaking process and was able (without a cheat-sheet) to recommend appropriate pairings! Wow - what great service we had!
Recently, I teamed up with a colleague at another regional college to initiate a wine industry mystery shoppers program. Basically, he recruited about 50 knowledgeable wine aficionados and trained them to visit wineries and using a post-trip evaluation form - evaluate each winery.
The findings will be reported in a two upcoming meetings/conferences to the industry. One interesting finding that I'll share has to do with the Tasting Room Experience visitors report: Women visitors tend NOT to get the same quality of information as men. According to our study women want more information about grape varietals, paring options, and explanations of each wine they tasted. One big finding/opportunity: these knowledgeable women of wine reported that they didn't feel encouraged to ask questions!
Everyone has their own individual expectations when they visit a winery - some don't mind a snob behind the tasting counter, some want their attendant to be cute, while others want a personal tour of the winery. Mostly we all want good service and at the heart of good service is listening (actively listening) to our customers and helping them achieve the experience they desire -- and both win, the winery with increased sales (and great reputation) and the consumer!
I guess the challenge for all winery visitors is to keep an open mind, recognizing each place has it's own unique personality (just like each of us), and to gain some new knowledge or appreciation from each winery we visit - even if those personalities clash -- hopefully, at least, the tastings will be free!
Monday, January 26, 2009
Sometime around 2006 AMEX ceased funding DiRoNa and the organization changed it's business model. Beginning in 2007 inspections would remain anonymous, and the restaurant had to pay a $1,500 inspection fee.
The DiRoNa brand has suffered and I don't think it is long for this world.
There is an obvious conflict between and restaurant which desires a favorable review and an organization which provides such a review, at a price. In the former business model the restaurant under review did not pay a penny for the review and their only cost was to buy an award certificate should they be so inclined. I am uncomfortable knowing that the DiRoNa brand is, essentially, for sale.
This past week the 2009 DiRoNa renewal form showed up in my inbox. There used to be over 800 restaurants listed by DiRoNa (when it was a real award) and less than 300 now that you pay for the inspection, and the quality of those restaurants had decreased significantly. After only a couple seconds of consideration it went into the trash can.
Good bye DiRoNa: it has been nice knowing you.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
During the last hot humid days of September, 2007, after having scouted several natural areas over the preceding months, I was rewarded with a nice, albeit very small batch of wild grapes from which I would make my first gallon of wild grape wine.
If you have ever picked wild grapes to make jam, jelly or in my case wine, you'll appreciate the effort it takes. Unlike their trained cousins growing on a chest-high trellis ready for easy picking these tiny, wild rascals grow on old fences, bushes, and climb into the heights of nearby trees. Not easy to find. Not easy to pick. Add to that the mosquitoes, briers, and poison ivy -- now we're talking fun!
Seriously though, making wine from wild grapes is satisfying - both in terms of the amount of effort required and the wine made/consumed. The fact IS not many folks take the time to make wild grape wine. I remember when we bottled those first few bottles of Wild Grape wine last year and after sampling a bit I was shocked...shocked by how good and earthy it was.
Early last summer, my brother drove the 1,100 miles from Maryland for a visit with us (he was here for a crush party too - of fresh grapes from Chile). Later that night I opened the first bottle (of 5) of our Wild Grape and we sat on in our 3-season porch on a pleasantly warm evening and sampled the wine (13.5% alc). Just like I remembered -- yummy! By bottles end it was about time for bed.
After the Eastern Iowa floods of 2008 we scoured the landscape for wild grapes, but many of the locations we had from the year before were inundated with water and did not produce grapes this year. With the help of a friend, he led us to his fathers house south of Des Moines where we were to harvest wild plums...instead we found a good supply of wild grapes. We ended up harvesting over 26 pounds (post stemming) and placed the grapes into my freezer to wait until winter to begin fermentation. So today, on a -8F sunny Saturday, we freed the wild grapes to begin thawing. In a day or so (when the must is warmed enough) we'll introduce the yeast and wait for the onset of fermentation.
I'm excited about working with these grapes and feel grateful I can borrow from the natural areas of Iowa and craft a truly unique wine.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
This is how my wine list at Restaurant 213 begins:
“Can't we just get rid of wine lists? Do we really have to be reminded every
time we go out to a nice restaurant that we have no idea what we are doing? Why don't they just give us a trigonometry quiz with the menu?” ~ Jerry Seinfeld
It is my opinion that a very large number of restaurants hide their ignorance of wine by the use of incomprehensible wine lists. There is little reason that in this age of democratized information that wine retailers cannot do a better job of sharing information required by the customer at the point of sale.
Here are a few suggestions to make life easier for the wine buyer:
1. Provide a listing of suggested wines for each of the restaurant entrees.
2. Provide an opportunity for the customer to provide comments back to the restaurant in an un-moderated blog.
3. Winelists which can be downloaded into individual PDAs, iPhones, Crackberries, etc.
4. Increase training for the wait staff. Note: I dine out a lot and only once in past year have I dined at a restaurant with a dedicated Sommelier. Most often it is the wait staff which makes the wine recommendations and in most cases without benefit of knowledge.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Funny how things work.
Last week we received a call at Restaurant 213 from the owners of a hotel and restaurant in Berlin, MD. The company which had been managing the business had failed (more on that later) and the owners asked us if we were interested in taking over the business.
Essentially we were being offered the opportunity to assume management of an on-going enterprise consisting of the following:
- 16 room hotel ($360,000 revenue 2008)
- Restaurant ($1.4M revenue 2008)
- Wine shop ($120,000 revenue 2008)
Their initial negotiation position was $50,000 up front and $10,000 per month rent. The lessee would be responsible for all building costs - "triple net" is the term.
I ran the numbers and it was interesting to see where the business went bad. Here are some quick observations:
* Beginning in 2006, the cost of goods sold (wine, food, beer) went from 34% to 44%. On sales of $1.4 million, that means that $140,000 of unnecessary cost growth. There are lots of ways this can happen: too large of portions, careless buying, too small of margins or (most likely) crooked vendors.
* Employee costs as a percentage of sales increased from 36% to 41%. On total sales of approximately $2 million, that means that $200,000 of inefficiency. Likely reasons for this inefficiency: failure to "right size" with declining sales, too aggressive of hiring, not firing the right people.
My opinion is that this is a good opportunity and we are speaking with people to raise $100,000 by next Friday. Have been working on Term Sheets (the agreements between us and those who invest in the company - defines the benefits they get and the obligations we get).
I think we have about a 25% chance of closing the deal. If we do: I get to buy more wine. More to come on this...
No matter where you live it seems each place lays claim to this old saying “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes” – and each time I hear it, the person speaks as though it is the first time I should have heard it. Well, five minutes ago it was twenty-four degrees below zero (and feels like fifty below – like there’s a difference?!?!) and the lower pane of the window overlooking my grape vines has a build-up of ice.
Wicked cold days like these suck all of the moisture from the atmosphere, the house is dry, the air is dry, the snow is crunchy and painfully dry, and I worry about my vines neck deep in snow. During the past year, I have met a couple of individuals in my travels that couldn’t believe we didn’t grow vinifera (traditional grapes, like they grow in California) here in Iowa. Growth is a relative thing. Yes, vinifera can grow here and maybe even produce a small crop every now and then when a grower uses extreme viticulture measures, such as burying the vines each winter. But frankly the amount of work required to keep these delicate vines productive in our harsh, short growing season outweighs the benefit. Fortunately, we have grape vines that are tough, just like Midwesterners, and can over-winter even in these crazy, cold temperatures.
Even with this knowledge I cannot help but wonder, as I look over my first-year plantings of Marechal Foch, if they will survive this cold-snap. But there isn’t much I can do about it right now, so I watch and wait and hope and fantasize about spring bud break. Of course I could just wait five minutes!
Friday, January 9, 2009
After reading Terry’s post about his wonderful wines I kept wondering what I have in my cellar already bottled and what I have in the wings. First, let me assure you that I do not have a wine drinking problem – it’s more of a winemaking problem!
And while I am envious of those of you who possess wine cellars filled with the brim with exotic and rare labels, I must confess a bit of satisfaction at making my own variety of rare wines – some of which turned out to be big flops and others award winning. I’ll begin with what is already bottled in the cellar and then talk about what’s coming up.
Raspberry (2006) – lightly sweetened: Another one of our very first wines. Thin and not enough raspberry fruit flavors. (8 bottles).
Cranberry (2007) – lightly sweetened: A couple holidays ago, we purchased some fresh cranberries and made our first cranberry wine. Very tart and very past its useful life - oxidized (3 bottles).
Rhubarb (2007) – lightly sweetened: Grown behind the garage and fermented in the house! We produced only a gallon during our first try with rhubarb – a rascal to work with. (5 bottles).
Wild Grape (2007) - Dry: Handpicked wild grapes on state land in Iowa. One gallon was not enough! Very tasty! (2 bottles).
Concord/Marechal Foch Blend (2007) – lightly sweetened: A nice, fruity blend of Iowa grown grapes. First place: Eastern Iowa Amateur Wine Competition. (3 bottles).
Catawba (2007) – off dry: We got the juice from NY and fermented it here. This wine was very tough to start and is plagued with some off flavors – probably diethyl sulfide. Despite that we won these awards: First place: Cedar County Fair; third place: Eastern Iowa Amateur Wine Competition (13 bottles).
Apple-Kiwi-Strawberry (2007) – lightly sweetened: A summer, sitting in the garden drunk, wine! Second place: Eastern Iowa Amateur Wine Competition; Third place: Cedar County Fair.
Apple (2007) – off-dry: One of our favorites! Very reminiscent of a Riesling and so easy to drink. First place: Eastern Iowa Amateur Wine Competition and top-5 selection. (6 bottles – we’re sad).
I Was Bored – Grapefruit (2007) – lightly sweetened: Okay, I’ve heard that grapefruit makes wine with notes of Sauvignon Blanc – so, we tried! Yuck!
Rhubarb (2008) – Dessert-styled. If you like rhubarb crisp in a bottle, you might like this! (14 bottles).
Blackberry (2008) – Dry: We went wild making blackberry wine. Okay. (10 bottles).
Blackberry (2008) – Lightly sweetened: We left a little residual sugar. Okay (7 bottles).
Blackberry Port (2008) – Dessert, Port-Inspired: Our first attempt making a port-styled wine and we really like it. Bottled just before Christmas (2008) we give them as presents (375ml)! Very tasty! (22, 750ml bottles and 13, 375ml bottles).
Total: 142 bottles!
Just so you know, a family is legally allowed to make 200 gallons of wine per year and if our cellar isn’t full enough already, here is what is coming. FYI: 1 gallon is roughly equivalent to 5, 750ml bottles of wine!
To be bottled in 2009:
Peach – Sweet: We are phasing out of fruit wine making but I was bored in early August and so here is the result. Has nice peach flavor and its typical aromatic baggage. (6 gallons)
Marechal Foch (red) – free-run: We helped pick these grapes in late August – probably a little early but is showing its Fochy characteristics – strong earthy and coffee notes. Oak. (22 gallons).
Traminette (white): I have written about Traminette before. We are very impressed with this one. It is in the final stages of cold stabilization. (10 gallons).
Malbec (red): Our winemaking group purchased grapes from Chile and crushed them in April (08). Currently undergoing cold stabilization. We aged it with MT oak and is promising. (5 gallons).
Chambourcin (red): A true Midwestern favorite! Delicious berries and very tasty wine. One of our most promising reds! oak. (15 gallons).
Peach-Traminette (blend): We blended 50:50 peach-Traminette – sweetened! Yummy (1 gallon)
Pear – Sparkling): I helped a winemaking friend process a few hundred pounds of pears and came away with a few gallons. We are planning on making a sparkling wine from it using the traditional method. (2 gallons).
Zinfandel (red): After working the crush with a local winery that sourced some organic Zinfandel grapes from California, I was given four pails of must! Yay! (7 gallons).
Total: 73 gallons
If you’re in Iowa later this year and have an interest in being part of a bottling process, we welcome your help! What’s in your cellar???
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
I envy people (like my brother) who have a huge wine cellar. While he has not yet filled that space, I have no doubt that he will shortly be looking for more storage space.
On the other hand, do not have a wine cellar: I have a wine closet. Thanks to Ikea I have four low-price metal wine racks in my bedroom closet. Once people find out that select wines for a fine dining restaurant, I am occasionally asked what kind of wine I own. Well, you didn't ask but here is a listing of what I hold in alphabetical order. Please note: I don't own cases of any of these and in several instances only own one bottle.
- Château de Beaucastel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2005. I own one bottle which I'll save for a few years.
- Cline, Zinfandel, 2003. Good everyday zin.
- Les Frères Couillaud, Chardonnay Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France Domaine de Bernier, 2007. I have bought this since the 2004 vintage and found it to be an awesome value in a French white selling for around $10 at retail. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
- Fireside Winery, Hearthside Red, 2007. I have already written about it.
- Ferraton Père & Fils, Côtes du Rhône-Villages Plan de Dieu, 2007. Hold three bottles will open in a couple of years. When I tasted it, it was "tight" but not overly so for a Cotes du Rhone - I am hopeful for a great wine.
- L'Illuminata, Barbera d'Alba Colbertina, 2002. Awful wine. Awful. Awful. Awful.
- La Crema, Russian River Valley Chardonnay, 2002. Past it's prime. Still good, but no longer great.
- La Creama, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, 2002. One of the very few wines in which I could taste the soil - this is no exageration.
- Dr. Loosen, Riesling Kabinett Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Graacher Himmelreich, 2005. Oranges, blossom and citrus. Will drink very soon.
- Monte Antico, Toscana, 2004. Value priced, food-friendly Italian red. Humble but good.
- Bernard Morey, Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot, 2006. The 2005 was lively and elegant - lemon on the nose and a lovely wheat color. Have not tasted the 2006 yet.
- Castelo do Papa, Godello, 2005. Great value. Wonderful with fish.
- Morgan, Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Double L Vineyard, 2004. Best pinot noir I have ever tasted.
- Purple Silo, Various Iowa varietals, 2008. Crazy winemaker enduring floods and subzero winters.
- Ridge, Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains Santa Cruz Mountain Estate, 2005. Best American chardonnay I have ever tasted.
- Ridge, Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Lytton Springs, 2003. Ridge has never let me down.
- Ridge, Zinfandel Russian River Valley Ponzo Vineyard, 2005. Ridge has never let me down.
- St.-Cosme, Côtes du Rhône White, 2006. Underappreciated white. Can't remember what I paid for it, but I think it was a good deal. If you find Cotes du Rhone whites: buy them.
- Tardieu-Laurent, Côtes du Rhône Guy Louis, 2004 and 2005. My current favorite overall wine.
- Yalumba, Shiraz-Viognier Barossa Hand Picked, 2005. Full flavored but not over-powering. The viognier rounds the shiraz edge. Lots of fruit and a nearly overwhelming nose.
I freely admit that I am able to aquire hard-to-find wines from our wine reps which has allowed to be buy a trophy wine, or two. I have missed some great ones despite having been affored the opportunity to buy them before they got famous - Molly Dooker comes to mind.
I have a bias against wines like Opus One and Silver Oak which make a fine product, but not so great a product to demand the significant premium. And, I take my greatest joy in finding the low priced gems.
If you have a wine that I should be tasting: let me know.
Several months ago we visited a Midwestern winery, tasted several of their wines, and purchased a bottle of “pink” (or blush or rose’) and placed it on our wine rack and forgot about it. A few nights ago we decided to uncork the bottle. As I placed the bottle on the counter Jill remarked on how our pink wine had developed a darker hue (our winemaker alarms were activated!). As I poured the wine into our awaiting glasses we braced ourselves for the inevitable – oxidation!
In white wines, oxidation is evident in yellowing, loss of fruity character, increased bitterness, lifeless aroma, and a has a distinctive caramel aroma (or honey smell); in pink wines, oxidation is evinced similarly and typically has a brownish hue; and in red wines, oxidation shows its ugly head when the pigments in red wine become polymerized and lose their color. White and pink wines are more susceptible to oxidation.
Whatever the cause of oxidation (and there are many) the root of the problem rests mostly on how the wine is handled – read: lack of attention to detail by the winemaker. When processing wine it is important, and there are some exceptions, to keep oxygen away from our must and wine. For the professional winemaker that means a judicious use of inert gas covers during crush and transfers. By flushing a receiving tank (during a racking or transfer) with an inert-like gas such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen or argon, the oxygen is displaced by the heavier gas and our wine is protected during this potentially oxidative situation.
As you might expect, even in the most stringent of conditions some oxygen makes its way into our must/wine. How do winemakers manage oxygen that finds its way into wine? Through the addition of sulfur-dioxide (SO2) – you see it as a message on the bottle that says “sulfites added.” SO2 or “sulfur” serves a couple of important purposes: 1) Antiseptic: at crush, it inhibits the growth of wild yeasts (although yeast can handle SO2 better than bacteria), bacteria (acetic – vinegar and lactic acid bacteria, aka: secondary fermentation), and mold; 2) Antioxidant: sulfur inhibits enzymatic action of polyphenol oxidase and laccase that leads to oxidation.
Pretty simple: SO2 cleans up our must/wine (antiseptic) and SO2 protects our wine from oxygen’s dark side (antioxidant). It is imperative for winemakers to evaluate the levels of SO2 in our wines to ensure they are properly protected. Regularly monitored using a fairly easy test, called aeration-oxidation method, gives accurate readings of how much SO2 is available or “Free” to bind with oxygen -- and informs to whether we need to make an addition!
If the Midwestern wine industry wants to be competitive and taken seriously by those outside of our region we must ensure all of our wines are properly protected against the adverse effects of oxygen.
Margallit, Y. (2004). Concepts in Wine Technology. Wine Appreciation Guild, San Francisco, CA.
Dharmadhikari, M.R., and Wilker, K.L. (2001). Micro Vinification: A practical guide to small-scale wine production. Southwest Missouri State University. Mountain Grove, MO.
Saturday, January 3, 2009
My brother brought out two bottles of Fireside Winery "Hearthside" red wine when he visited here in December. Hearthside is a blend of Chambourcin and Chancellor grapes and grown in Iowa.
The Fireside Winery web page describes "Hearthside" as, "Our dry red wine, a blend of Chambourcin and Chancellor grapes, is a medium-bodied wine that shows off the deep purple color for which Chancellor is known. Aromas of roasted nuts, licorice, and green peppers make Hearthstone the ideal choice for curling up by the fireplace on a cold winter night, or for serving with rack of lamb or beef tenderloin."
Chambourcin (hybrid) is not a widely known grape and hasn't gotten much market penetration. The essential issue with Chambourcin is acceptance with the buying public and the confidence of patrons at my restaurant.
I tried one of the bottles yesterday with a rare prime rib. Here are my thoughts about the wine.
1. Fruit leads the way. There is a nice fruit nose on the wine. I am not some sort of super-taster and could not dissern the roasted nuts, licorice or green peppers that the winery noted. What I did note was a significant fruit which is fine with me.
2. It seemed a little "hot" to me. The bottle says 13.3% alcohol by volume - seems hotter than that to me.
3. Tannins were thin. I am somewhat experienced Chambourcin and Chancellor grapes as they are widely grown in Northern Virginia (Leesburg) and realize that I shouldn't expect Cabernet Sauvignon like tannic structure. I expect Chambourcin to be soft - but not this soft. I don't think the wine is cellar-worthy. The wine is as good now as it will ever be and should be consumed young.
So, the $100 question: Would I put this wine on my wine list? Maybe.
At $12 per bottle at the winery, I assume that the bottle would wholesale between $4.50 and $5.00 per bottle. This would make the wine (on a price basis) a good candidate for my "by the glass" selection where I would price it at $7.00 or $8.00 per serving allowing me to cover the cost of the bottle with the first pour and to gross $28 to $32 per bottle.
I guess the answer is, "yes" that I'd put it on my wine list starting with "by the glass" to gauge if there is demand for the product. If there were support then I'd move it to the main list.
Friday, January 2, 2009
A Winemaking Update:
On October 3, 2008, we purchased 150 lbs (enough for about 10 gallons) of Traminette grapes from a vineyard in Nauvoo, Illinois to make a fruit-forward styled white wine. Traminette is a white grape and a cross between Gewurztraminer and Joannes Seyve 23-416 (a hybrid released by the Geneva NY research station in 1996) and designed to tolerate colder climates, such as parts of Iowa and the Midwest, and makes an easily drinkable white wine.
We crushed the grapes using a water bladder press at my friend, Brett’s winery (Old Windmill Cellars). After determining initial refractometer readings of 19.2 Brix (equivalent to ~10% potential alcohol) at crush we decided to increase the Brix to 21, giving us a potential alcohol of 11.5%. Initial pH of 3.05 and TA of 7.65 seemed pretty good. After a brief cold soak, to allow sediment to settle, we racked off the gross lees into a new vessel and inoculated the must with Red Star Cotes De Blancs yeast and continued with cold fermentation (low 50’s) until dry. We could really detect the Gewurztraminer parent in our new wine! Nice.
Just now I took a small sample of the Traminette to see how it was progressing and am quite pleased. The wine is in the final stages of cold stabilization and consequently the sample was very cold at first taste – but even then it was tasty. As my glass warms to serving temperature, I find it to be very pleasing with hints of Gewurztraminer (floral and spicy), nice acidity, and an incredibly inviting fragrance. Though many makers of Gewurztraminer and Traminette frequently sweeten this lively wine, our goals are to leave it dry.
Tends to pair well with poultry, seafood, and Asian-styled food.
Thursday, January 1, 2009
Let me spend a few lines and discuss the strategy that most restaurants follow when it comes to selling wine.
- Restaurants typically sell wine at a 150% to 200% mark up. At first blush, that seems like a huge mark-up, but in reality it isn't that much higher than you'd pay at a wine shop or grocery store. My observation is that a typical wine shop will sell at 100% to 135% mark-up with a grocery store in the 135% to 150% range. In the restaurant business there are additional costs in maintaining an "on site" wine/beer license and the cost of replacing wine glasses which are broken by customers (rarely) and diswashers (often). This means that a bottle of wine that wholesales for $10 will sell for $25 to $30 at a restaurant.
- When at a casual dining restaurant buy among the MOST EXPENSIVE wine on the list. And, when at a fine dining restaurant buy among the LEAST EXPENSIVE wine on the list. Speaking from personal experience, I put over 75% of my time selecting wines in the $30 and under category (which for my restaurant is LEAST EXPENSIVE). The reason is simple, we average an $80 per-person ticket and individuals who will pay for fine dining will pay for fine wine. And selecting great wines in the $80 - $150 range is pretty simple: it is less simple finding a good wine at a lower price for those customers who wish to buy in that category. The inverse is true at casual dining restaurants: most diners expect to find low-priced wines, but a few will desire something special. Market segmentation demands that you have product to meet the average diner as well as the exceptional diner.
- Be careful of wine "specials". A restaurant will sometimes sell an over-aged wine at a discount to get it off of the books. In the past month I have seen two specials where California Chardonnay from the 2002 vintage was a "special" - the 2002's are getting long in the tooth and are likely past their prime.
I blame Lucy, as in Lucile Ball of I Love Lucy fame, for perpetuating one of the romantic notions we often associate with wine making. There was Lucy, in that all too familiar scene, stomping grapes to make wine. Fun? Yes – practical for today’s winemaking – no!
Many of us have similar stock images of the wine cellar stacked to the ceiling with French oak barrels filled to the bung with Pinot noir. Few things capture the ambience and magic of winemaking more than the traditional oak barrel and yet within the cellar there is a secret. More about the secret later.
It all began with the first “accidental” fermentation and the lucky fool who first consumed it and not long afterwards, it can be reckoned, to the merchants (reportedly as far back as 900 BC) who needed to move it: First there was the amphorae (clay pots to hold the wine) and later barrels made from wood. Oak was found to work best because of its cellular structure (less porous than other woods, such as pine) and imparted a pleasant flavor to the wine it contained.
Coopers have a wide variety of oak species to consider when designing an oak barrel. A tremendous amount of research exists comparing the chemical constituencies of different sources of oak finding French oak tends to impart about 2 ½ times more ellagitannin phenolics, while American oak offers more oak flavors and odorants. When it comes down to the decision of whether one winemaker will choose an American, French, Hungarian, or other European sourced oak barrel much of the decision is left to past experience, tradition, availability, and frequently price. A quick look at World Cooperage, a well-known source of oak barrels, found the average price for an American oak barrel (59gal) to be $280, while the French equivalent was $680, and a comparable eastern European barrel somewhere between. Oak is pricey (and a lot of work to maintain), and has a limited life (around 3 - 6 years) – afterwards they are either shaven and re-toasted or become flower planters.
Here are a few more things about oak barrels before I reveal the secret. Other than serving as a convenient and decorative storage device for our wine, oak barrels provide:
1. A Place for Oxidation: Because of the micro-oxidative function of oak barrels (they let a little bit of oxygen in and evaporate water from the wine), the tannins tend to mellow, which allows for increased color and wine stability.
2. A Place to Mature: As a vessel for maturation, the oak imparts its oaky-goodness (flavors and odorants) to the wine.
3. A Place to Ferment: Fermenting white wines in new oak barrels lends a creamy mouth feel to the appropriate white, such as Chardonnay; while others, such as Sauvignon Blanc are designed to be fruit-forward to show off their youth and are fermented cool in a stainless steel tank. Frequently some whites are fermented in oak and the barrel is then passed down to the red wine to age!
The value of oak barrels is significant and is steeped in tradition and is used by many winemakers to showcase their best wines. There are others, however, that bypass the traditional use of oak barrels by using – here is the secret – oak alternatives. Surely this is Blasphemy!
The oak is out of the bag, so to speak, and ironically oak alternatives frequently show up in bags: bags of oak staves and spirals (think sticks), bags of chips (think of a wood chipper) and bags of powder (think of oak dust). Yes, winemakers use oak alternatives at various stages, from pre-fermentation, during fermentation, to post-fermentation to gain many of the benefits of oak without the expense and time-consuming maintenance of oak barrels.
Oak alternatives are not as romantic as the standard Bordeaux style oak barrel but serve some of the same functions – at a fraction of the cost. And before you dismiss oak alternatives, I suggest you do a side-by-side blind comparison of a similar styled wine; two aged in oak barrels and two with oak alternatives and let your taste decide.
Wine and romance go together just like wine and oak barrels (and sometimes, alternatives) – because it works! Our romantic ideals and imagery associated with wine become our experience. Though the secret is now out of the bag we can still appreciate the care given to our wine, whether our oak is in the form of barrels or chips, it need not interfere with our oak romance.
Source: Schahinger, G. & Rankine, B. (2005). Cooperage for Winemakers: A manual on the construction, maintenance and use of oak barrels. Winetitles, Adelaide, AUS.