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How to Compete in the Barrel Market

With premium winemaking on the rise across the globe, the thirst for French oak, almost unanimously considered to be the world’s best for barrel-aging wine, is at an all-time high. But while French forests have been well-managed for centuries, they are not getting any bigger, so prices are creeping higher. Cooperages are seeking ways to better compete with shifting events.

Quinn Roberts is exploring one strategy. As master cooper of Tonnellerie Ô, the newest cooperage in California, Roberts is spearheading a “French Oak Master Cooper Selection” program in which participating winemakers can trace their barrels in-person from forest to stave mill to their cellar. The cooperage uses only four stave mills within a two-hour drive from Paris, which makes for easy visits, then ships the staves to their Benicia, California, cooperage to be customized into barrels that fit a winery’s toast, size and shape needs.

Oak stave seasoning.
Oak stave seasoning.

A Barrel’s Lineage

Though novel in the barrel world—and not cheap, with finished barrels costing $1,600, almost double the company’s usual price—the idea takes cues from the rest of the modern farm-to-table culture in which consumers want to know exactly where each ingredient on their dish or in their glass originates.

“In the French national forests, you see the most intensive form of forest management and the most selective thinning through the stages of life of the trees,” said Roberts, whose stave mill partners source as much as possible from these forests, usually through blind auctions.

“The goal is to thin the oak trees that are not needed, leave behind the youngest oak trees and preserve these stands of trees to force them into competition with one another, primarily for light. That prevents lateral branching of the tree and promotes the straightest growth of the tree. The highest quality staves come from the longest, straightest trunks, which have very tight grain and very few defects.”

Raised and residing in Napa, Roberts is a second-generation cooper. After working in Robert Mondavi’s cellar, his father, Keith, trained in Bordeaux with renowned sixth-generation cooper Philippe Demptos, then co-founded Barrel Demptos Napa and the Mendocino Cooperage, some of the first California-based barrel-making companies. Along with his brother, Nathan, the Roberts boys learned barrel-making in their teens. “By the time we were in high school, we were fully qualified coopers,” Quinn Roberts explains. Though he studied Russian literature at UC-Davis, his father lured him back into the business, eventually leading to his Tonnellerie Ô job in 2012. Nathan, meanwhile, went on to found Arnot-Roberts winery.

That makes Roberts the perfect guide for winemakers visiting stave mills like Meranderie Gauthier Camille, run by Nathalie Gauthier in Méry-ès-Bois, surrounded by the Loire Valley’s thick oak forests. One of the last independent stave mills in France solely dedicated to processing wood for wine—consolidation has taken over much of this market—Gauthier is fiercely proud of their traditional ways.

“For us, the hands and the two eyes are very important—you can see more hands and eyes than machines here,” Gauthier said during one of Roberts’ tours last spring, the buzz of saws and aroma of shaved wood all around. “Nowadays you would say this is ‘natural,’ but we’ve always worked in this way.” Her son, Vincent, is the last in her family to know how to split the massive oak logs with just an ax and wedge, which he happily does as part of the visit.

Tonnellerie Ô cooperage crew about to take lunch in one of the French oak forests.
Tonnellerie Ô cooperage crew about to take lunch in one of the French oak forests.

Maintaining A Wood’s Unique Qualities

One of the program’s participating winemakers, Patrick Muran of Niner Estates in Paso Robles, watched in awe recognizing the importance of this process goes deeper than show-and-tell. He believes with more corporate consolidation of wood processing, the resulting barrels can wind up homogenized, so there is less chance to recognize the terroir-like influence of a particular forest or mill. “It’s getting harder to draw those lines back to the forest,” Muran said. “A lot of cooperages talk this way, but they wind up blending wood at some point.”

It will take time to determine whether Tonnellerie Ô’s program succeeds in bringing a forest-to-bottle ethic to the barrel business. But the company, which was founded in 2009, making it California’s newest, continues to expand.

“When I started working here five years ago, we were making 19 barrels a day—now we are making 45 barrels a day,” Roberts said, adding they made 10,000 barrels last year. “We would like to double that.”