The making of a barrel maker

Jane Firstenfeld

Keith Roberts is one-of-a-kind. As in any creative field, the wine industry is populated by a colorful cast of characters. In our vocabulary, “passion” has become almost a cliche. Our folklore is filled with fierce individualists and daring iconoclasts who apply their own brilliant flourishes to an ancient art, branding it as their own. Yet Roberts literally stands alone. For the past five years, as master cooper and director of cooperage operations at Beringer Blass Wine Estates, he’s been in charge of the only in-house barrel making operation at any California winery.

How did he arrive at this unique position? A master cooper for 26 years, with a resume that spans the modern wine history of California, Roberts proved to be the ideal source to describe the current state of coopering and its place within the industry. Indeed, he shared his insights with a generous eloquence that reflects–forgive me–the passion he feels for his craft.

“I have been employed as a cooper for 31 years. I had my first exposure to wine cooperage as a cellar worker at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville in 1971, and came to learn the cooperage trade through a series of unexpected circumstances,” he recalls.

“There were no cooperages in California at that time, but I was introduced to a barrel maker from France, Philippe Demptos, who was visiting his customers in Napa Valley. We became friends, and he invited me to visit his family’s cooperage in Bordeaux.

“My first visit lasted four weeks, during which I worked in the repair shop learning the techniques and tools of the trade. I returned numerous times over the next three years for extended periods, working in the cooperage and traveling with Philippe and his cousin, Jean, through the French forests on wood buying trips. This was my rather unorthodox apprenticeship.”

Since that apprenticeship, he’s been a front row witness to the evolution of an industry. His education continued during the next 20 years. He worked as winery cooper at Robert Mondavi Winery; became one of the original partners at Barrel Builders, St. Helena; created and managed Napa Valley Cooperage Company and was a partner and master cooper at Demptos Napa Cooperage.

In 1991, he went to work for Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County, designing and building Mendocinc Cooperage with the legendary Paul Dolan and his winemaking team. He counts among his mentors Philippe Demptos, Christian Radoux, Robert Mondavi and Andre Tchelistcheff. Heady company for a onetime “cellar rat.”

While it’s no longer common for California wineries to employ a full-time cooper, “Prior to Prohibition, a number of wine companies in California had cooperage shops for repair and renovation of older barrels and tanks and construction of new barrels,” Roberts explains. “The advantages that an integrated cooperage brings to a wine company are control of oak quality, the capability to customize design and cost management.”

Barrel making is analogous to winemaking, according to Mora Cronin, vice president, public relations and corporate affairs, Beringer Blass Wine Estates. “From the growing conditions in the forest to the selection of raw material to the way the wood is seasoned, aged and toasted, there are hundreds of choices to be made that ultimately affect the wine’s characteristics and quality,” she comments. “(Our) Winemakers’ Cooperage gives our winemakers an important tool, allowing them to finely control and shape the quality of the barrels they use, and ultimately, the wine they put in the bottle. Just like grapegrowing, the more control you have over the entire process, the better quality you get in the end.”

Of course, it helps that Beringer Blass produces in excess of 17 million gallons of wine annually. With dozens of cooperages courting winemakers today, an in-house cooperage would be an unthinkable luxury for most wineries. Roberts and his full-time staff of 23 will produce approximately 16,000 barrels of different styles and capacities for harvest 2005. Winemakers’ Cooperage is in Cloverdale, in northern Sonoma County; with wood and finished barrel storage, it occupies 35,000 square feet.

The operation produces barrels 11 months of the year, March through January. “Typically, we take the month of February for a thorough cleaning of the facility, major maintenance of the equipment, special projects and training,” Roberts says.

Not surprisingly, the training regimen is rather different than Roberts’ own lofty apprenticeship in the oak forests of France. “Most cooperages prefer to hire untrained workers, because we all have our own approach to the craft,” he says. “Since every cooperage operates differently, to some extent, it is usually necessary to untrain someone coming from another shop. In our cooperage, the training is tailored to the individual, but to become fully qualified usually takes 30-36 months.

“Our staff is largely cross-trained,” Roberts continues, “but most spend the majority of their time in one area of production–material processing, barrel assembly, toasting, finishing. The time required to make a barrel depends on the toasting requirement, which can be as short as 60 minutes, or as long as 90 minutes.

“Since we don’t make one barrel at a time, we measure our efficiency by how many man-hours are required to make a barrel. The formula is the number of workers times the number of shift hours, divided by the number of barrels produced during the shift. Currently, we are operating at about two-man-hours-per-barrel efficiency.” Roberts describes his primary responsibilities as director of cooperage operations: wood acquisition, product planning, quality management and education, “Although I still participate in barrel production from time to time.

“As export markets have become more important to the French cooperages, fewer of them specialize any longer in a single type of barrel,” he notes. “Rather, they have expanded their product range to accommodate New World winemakers’ needs. Still, globally, winemakers tend to rely on Burgundian coopers for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir barrels and Bordeaux coopers for Cabernet and Merlot barrels, believing that each regional cooperage industry possesses a singular savoir faire.”

While his facility produces a range of barrels of traditional designs and capacities, Roberts admits he does have a favorite. “My preferred barrel is the one that I first learned at Demptos in Bordeaux: the traditional Bordeaux Chateau barrel of 225 liters. To my sensibility, this is a classic, elegant design, and I like best using the fine-grained wood that we buy from the forests of Troncais, Allier and Fontainbleau,” he says. French oak represents about 75% of his annual production, with the balance American and Hungarian oak.

The most important attribute for an aspiring cooper is, Roberts says, “The ability to understand and appreciate the craft ethic and the inherent beauty of something handcrafted of natural material, built for a utilitarian purpose as a vessel for wine. Pride of workmanship and respect for tradition are essential for success.”

Strength of desire is not enough, however. “The physical demands of the work can be daunting, and if you visit the cooperages of California, you will see that not only is the workforce all male, it is virtually all Hispanic males,” he points out. The biggest safety concerns, he says, are moving machine parts, especially the equipment used to shape material. “The most common injury is back strain, usually from moving materials or barrels,” he observes.

Looking Forward

As with all aspects of winemaking, the ancient craft of cooperage continues to evolve. From his vantage point, Roberts believes that, “The most important–perhaps the only–transforming change in the wine coopering craft in the past century has been the innovation of toasting.” This now common technique for enhancing and intensifying the aromatic characteristics of oak, “and, in the case of American oak, masking the less attractive aromas,” he says, “was not a universal part of the wine coopering process prior to the early 1970s. Heating the barrel after bending was used only to relieve the stress in the wood and set the new shape, and was usually done over a moderate temperature for a relatively short time.”

Roberts seems pleased to observe that, “Over the past generation, wine writers and wine consumers have come to understand and appreciate the unique and vital role that oak plays in the enhancement of fine wines. A properly made oak barrel can contribute depth and structure–as well as a myriad of appealing aromatic characters–that are lacking in wines made in stainless stell. While oak can be over-used, it is nevertheless recognized as an integral component of the highest quality and most valued wines worldwide.”

Unlike the oak trees of his beloved French forests, Roberts is not immovably rooted in tradition. “I don’t know what the future holds for the coopering trade, but I am interested to see what impact modern technologies, such as computers, and also the continued consolidation of the barrel industry will have on barrel–and ultimately–wine quality,” he says.

Roberts may be one-of-a-kind, but he’s not retiring yet; when he does, it may not be the end of an era. His son, Nathan, has worked with him for almost 14 years, and is now production manager at Winemakers’ Cooperage.

RELATED ARTICLE: What’s The Right Size Barrel?

Beringer Blass master cooper Keith Roberts makes barrels of all sizes, but he admits he has a favorite: 225 liters. We asked some California winemakers what size barrels they prefer. Their answers did not stray too far from that of the master.

Jean-Pierre Wolff is owner and vintner of Wolff Vineyards, San Luis Obispo, Central Coast, with an annual case production of 2,500. Wolff has about 100 59-gallon barrels and, “We use 32-gallons for late harvest wines; it increases oak exposure in a short time, compared to larger barrels.” (For those who are still a little shaky with metric conversion, 59 gallons equal approximately 225 liters.) Wolff replaces his barrels every three years.

Mitchell Katz, owner/winemaker at Mitchell Katz Winery in Pleasanton, Livermore Valley, also favors the 59-gallon size. All the barrels he uses for his 5,000 gallon annual production are that size. Katz replaces them every year.

Landmark Vineyards in Kenwood, Sonoma County, produces 25,000 cases per year. Winemaker Eric Stern uses 100% Burgundian coopered barrels of the traditional, 228-liter size.

“All our practices here follow fairly traditional methods,” Stern says. “Hence, the use of only Burgundian 228-liter barrels for the production of our Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Syrah.

“This size of barrel imparts an appropriate amount of oak, and permits a normal elevage time for our wines, generally between 9-16 months in barrel, depending on wine type and style, i.e., reserve or other,” Stern says. “In order to fine-tune this methodology, we also mix the amount of new oak vs. 1-year-old, 2-year-old and 3-year-old barrels in a given lot of wine and bottling blend.”

Sourcing the barrels among at least seven different French cooperages and buying approximately 25% new barrels each year brings even greater complexity to Landmark’s blends.

At Murphy-Goode Estate Winery in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley, winemaker David Ready, Jr., prefers 70-gallon barrels. The winery produces 160,000 cases per year, and currently, 62% of its barrels are of that size. The winery also uses 34% 65-gallon and 4% 60-gallon barrels.

“I would prefer that all barrels were made in a 70-gallon size,” Ready says. “Once we started using 70-gallon barrels and found them to integrate better into the wine, we tried to get everyone to produce that size. Most cooperages will. It also makes a lot of sense economically. They fit on standard racks, so you increase your storage capacity by 15%, and the difference in price for the barrels is minimal.”

What happens to the old barrels? Katz gives or sells his to home winemakers; Ready at Murphy-Goode also sells to home winemakers, wineries and bulk planter producers, as well as selling depleted barrels as planters at the winery. Jean-Pierre Wollf’s son makes them into furniture and candle holders that are sold in the winery tasting room.


COPYRIGHT 2005 Hiaring Company

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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