Now I like barrels just as much as the next winemaker. There are, however, several glaring issues with them the first of which is their cost. Second, they are extremely inefficient to organize and track when used in large numbers (say over 10,000 barrels or more in my case). Thirdly when employing this many barrels one is typically breaking down larger lots of wine into 60 gallon containers. So for instance if you have a 3,000 gallon lot of wine ( a relatively small lot by many winery standards) that means you now have 50 barrels to move that wine into, 50 barrels to track and keep together, 50 barrels to top, 50 different so2 levels, oxygen levels, …well you get the picture and that’s just for one single lot. It’s easier to make wine in large batches rather than small ones and not that you would always want to take the easy way but at some time though, you begin to ask yourself where the point of diminishing returns is. Wouldn’t it be great if we could replicate the barrel (which is, let’s face it, just as traditional as cork in the industry) without having to move the wine so many times, risking spoilage and contamination.
I feel that the industry is very close. We may already be there. I’m not sure. I have the sense that many more wineries are using oak adjuncts in combination with barrels and I have the sense that we as consumers can not really tell the difference anymore. At least not when high quality staves are being used.
I felt this even more strongly when I went to go visit a stave production facility a few weeks ago. I must admit this was my first visit to a such a place and for the protection of their process I will not describe it in detail, however I was blown away to say the least. I came away with a new sense of wondering just how many times in blind tastings I had said a wine was aged in barrel when in fact it was produced using staves. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the stave industry and a kind of “why haven’t we done this before?” type of moment. This got me to thinking about the troubles that barrels can cause in a larger brand and all of the sudden it made sense.
To bring this rambling thought full circle, for very high end or small production brands barrels may indeed still be the oak aging of choice. I myself still feel that barrels are a needed and highly valuble source of character and style in a wine, however I’m taking a harder look at staves from now on. I’m interested to see where this is going to go…