July 3, 2000
Erik Olsen, head winemaker.
Andy Byars demonstrates barrel making.
by Greg Thomason
Chateau Ste. Michelle has opened their new state-of-the-art 48,000-sq.-ft. barrel room facility constructed just south of the main building.
The barrel room holds 18,000 wine barrels on racks that rise to the ceiling. More than 3.8 million bottles of chardonnay will be fermented in this facility each year. The three rooms have separate temperature, ventilation and humidity controls which allow Erik Olsen, the head winemaker, to set different temperatures for different wines. A computer controls refrigeration, which Olsen can monitor from the winery computer, or via modem if he is traveling. Winery tour visitors will be able to see the barrels from a viewing balcony.
On Friday, June 23, Seguin Moreau, a French oak barrel-making corporation, was on site to demonstrate the art of barrel making for a training film being made by Chateau Ste. Michelle. Andy Byars, a Master Cooper with Seguin Moreau, made four barrels from scratch and demonstrated barrel repair as part of the demonstration.
"I have been making barrels for 24 years," said Byars, originally from Glasgow, Scotland. "I watched a movie in school, when I was 10, about Irish coopers in the Bush Mills of Ireland and knew I wanted to be a cooper. It was said it was a dying trade, but my school guidance counselor got me an interview when I was 15. I left school and became an apprentice for Mr. MacPherson at the Clyde Cooperage. After four years, I was employed there. We made whiskey barrels."
Byars went to work for Seguin Moreau in 1993. The company, in business for 30 years and in the U.S. for seven years, is headquarted in Cognac, France with two branches, one in Napa Valley, California, and one in Australia. Byars works in Napa Valley.
Seguin Moreau picks its oak from wood lots throughout the world, including France, Germany, Northern Russia, Adygey, the U.S. Mississippi River Valley, and Hungary. The barrels are all made by hand in France and the Napa Valley by traditionally trained coopers.
Winemakers request different types of oak. Of the French oak used, the types are Quercus alba, Quercus sessillis, and Quercus pedunculata. A new barrel typically costs approximately $600.
Byars showed how the barrels are built from start to finish. He started with 30 staves stacked vertically in a row. He then fashioned a hoop. He placed each stave inside the hoop, then added two more braces. Once all the wood was in place, he added two more hoops and then placed the barrel over a small cast-iron bucket with burning oak to begin the toasting. As it heated, the wood is wetted down with water to form a bind. After an hour over the fire, Byars put a cable around the bottom of the barrel to bend and seal it. He then added the rest of the hoop braces before putting the barrel back over the fire for the final toast.
"I am looking for the right smell and color," said Byars, who learned the art from MacPhearson, a man he described as having a bad temper, drinking a lot, and having big hands. "I didn't appreciate him at the time, but I do now."
According to Laruent Lebrun, at Seguin Moreau, the winemakers request certain smells and toasts--most often, a rich vanilla smell--but the toast request can vary from light, medium, or heavy. "We even have a medium plus," said Lebrun.
When the barrel is completed, coopers hand-fashion a croize cut, a chime (angle cut), and a camphore (bevel) on the top and bottom for the lids. The whole barrel-making process takes about four hours. Most coopers can construct three barrels in a day.
According to Olsen, Chateau Ste. Michelle uses the barrels for up to four years before recycling to other wineries or for other uses.
The wine absorbs into the toasted area slowly, up to 3-5 ml., and remains in the barrel for different lengths of time, depending on the winemaker's choice of oak characteristics.
Lebrun said that the oak trees used in France are 150 years old. They are grown on wood lots managed by the government, which uses procedures to plant the trees close together so they will grow straight and tall.
When asked what was the most unusual barrel he made, Byars responded, "I worked with a team to make a 20,000-gallon barrel in France, but the most difficult one I made was a small, made-to-order oval water barrel to fit on a ship."