Oak Barrels: The Winemaker’s Spice Rack, featuring Joe Freeman and Ed Morris from The Rubin Family of Wines

Oak Barrels: The Winemaker’s Spice Rack, featuring Joe Freeman and Ed Morris from The Rubin Family of Wines

 

 

Oak Barrels: The Winemaker’s Spice Rack, featuring Joe Freeman and Ed Morris from The Rubin Family of Wines

Kim Brittingham
Contributing Writer & Interviewer

Founder at www.kimwrites.com

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DSC_0469.1Barrels used to be as commonplace as cardboard boxes are today. From the 14th through the 19th centuries, they were used to ship all manner of goods, and when I say “shipped” I mean that literally. Ships’ hulls were packed with barrels bearing fish, whale oil, gunpowder, fruit and vegetables, nails, butter, molasses, soap, and, of course, wine.

Today few things are shipped in barrels, and most barrels are used for the storage and fermentation of wine and spirits. As technology has advanced, many wineries have turned to tanks of stainless steel of concrete, yet there are some winemakers who still place high value on an oak barrel for the unique touches it can put on a wine. As Joe Freeman, winemaker for the Rubin Family of Wines told me, “Barrels are really our spice rack as winemakers. We can get a lot of different flavors and aromas out of barrels.”

ed-morris-300x200Ed Morris, associate winemaker for Rubin, has a background in coopering. (“Coopering”, or barrel making, comes from the Middle Dutch/Middle Low German term kūpe for tub or vat, based on the Latin word cupa.) Before going to work for Rubin in 2010, Morris was a cooper in Sonoma County. “Looking back on it, it was a long time in the making,” he reflects. “I’m a fourth generation craftsman. My great-grandfather was a violin builder, my grandfather was a clock maker, and my father was a carpenter and boat builder. So when I happened to get a job at a local cooperage, it was almost fated. So within the first week, I kind of felt at home and was completely infatuated with what was happening around me.” Morris keeps a collection of old coopering tools that he occasionally shows to visitors of the winery who ask about repair and maintenance of the barrels.

I got curious about barrels for two reasons. For one thing, coopering struck me as one of those nifty, old-time skills like blacksmithing that you sometimes see demonstrated at historic sites, and I’m into that. But I was also intrigued by barrels as a creative tool in winemaking. In a 2015 interview with Freeman, I learned how a number of different factors can be controlled or tweaked in the making of a barrel that ultimately influence the wine. It brought out my inner mad scientist. I wanted to fly out to Sebastopol and spend twelve carefree months just playing among the barrels and grapes, experimenting, making a mess, and maybe making something delicious.

A really unique way to create a complete experience when people are smelling and tasting wines.

I bet Morris and Freeman have a lot of fun.

Says Freeman, “A lot of those really nice, sweet, roasted, toasty aromatics…we can get a lot of really intriguing aromatics out of grapes and out of the process of fermentation. Some of these different fruity notes that are produced by yeast and bread-like aromas and flavors…toffee, caramel, pure vanilla, some of the campfire aromas. All those things are coming from the barrels. That gives us a really unique way to create a complete experience when people are smelling and tasting wines.”

Barrels should be a supporting element of a wine’s flavor and aroma

lsBut Freeman is also quick to point out that barrels should be a supporting element of a wine’s flavor and aroma. A lady-in-waiting for Her Royal Highness, the Grape. “I’m always trying to make sure the flavors from the grapevine do not get lost. Those ripe berries we pick, that’s the characteristic that I want to be front and center when somebody’s tasting a glass of our wine,” he says. “The barrels can help elevate and preserve that fruit expression. There are compounds in the oak that will actually give more life and longevity to fruity aromas and flavors. We use barrels that are going to add some seasoning…add some tannin if we need a little bit of structure to fill out the palate.”

A barrel’s signature can change depending on where its oak was grown, so its origin is something a winemaker will consider. Morris explained that at the Rubin Family of Wines, they use two types of oak: French and American. “People do age Pinor Noir in American oak, and it can work,” said Morris, but he cautioned that “American oak can be very strong aromatically, so it can easily overpower the delicacy of the Pinor Noir grape. And you don’t get that tannin structure that you do from French oak.”

Drilling down yet another level, oaks from all countries can exhibit unique qualities based on the individual forests in which they’re grown. “You can get wood from Pennsylvania, you can get wood from Missouri,” said Morris, “and depending on where the trees grown, they are all slightly different. So it takes a lot of years of experience to learn what aromas and flavors to expect from the different forests.” He adds that at Rubin, “We look at that every year. It’s a continuous experiment on our end, and we’re continually learning. Hopefully, all of our experience is making us able to make better and better wines every year.”

And then there’s another variable: toasting.

Barrel toasting processAs part of the barrel making process, wooden staves are heated over a fire – “toasted” — so they can be curved. Eventually it was discovered that toasting altered the chemicals in the wood and had an effect on the wine stored in the finished barrel. Morris explains, “Depending on the degree of burning, you can influence structure, you can influence aromas, and you can influence flavors.”

We want barrels that give us consistent results year after year

cmsimage_22A barrel’s impact on the finished wine may seem like a crap shoot, but it’s becoming easier to control the variables. “We want barrels that give us consistent results year after year,” says Morris. “We’re at the point where cooperages have integrated scientific testing methods, quantifying some of these aromas, flavors and tannin levels. We tend to work with coopers who have incorporated those methods of tracking where the staves come from and that compounds are going into the barrel before the toasting happens. And then they have a really good handle on their different toast levels and how that’s going to change the barrel.”

Freeman adds, “As a winemaker, it’s been really neat to see the evolution (of the cooperage industry) over the last fifteen years. We actually see a lot of cooperages that are focusing on the craftsmanship and the artisan nature of (coopering), making sure their barrel production is tiny. They’ve got a few people that are outsourcing wood in the forests. And they’re able to do, on a small scale, some very consistent barrels year to year.”

Whether a barrel is new or used is yet another factor for a winemaker to consider. Morris cautions, “You have to be careful with used barrels because over time…they can pick up residual flavors…residual aromas.”

For makers of some types of spirits, that trace of stored wine is a welcome one. “There’s a huge secondary market for used barrels,” says Morris. “Not just wine barrels, but bourbon barrels as well. Used bourbon barrels get sold over to Europe, Scotland, and Ireland. A lot of them will go down to the Caribbean and South America to make rum. That residual bourbon flavor has a big influence on the flavor of scotch, of barrel-aged rum, on tequila. I’ve seen scotches that are finished with Cabernet bottles. So you can take a barrel that has had one beverage in it, and you could use that barrel to influence the second beverage that’s going into it.”

Morris and Freeman are indeed interested in used barrels, but for sustainability’s sake. At the Rubin Family of Wines, they’ve been doing some intriguing things to make second-hand barrels work for their purposes. Says Morris, “When you take a used barrel, you have all these other compounds that are in the wood that aren’t there with a new barrel. You have to pay attention to that and do everything you can to get rid of those compounds before you re-burn the inside of that barrel.” His process involves shaving out the inside of the used barrel with a wood shaving machine. Eventually, a barrel that’s reconditioned again and again will weaken, but Morris says at Rubin, after much trial and error, they’re able to do it well and consistently.

Freeman adds, “We’ve made a lot of strides, both here at the winery and through the grape industry as a whole, to be more sustainable and to utilize the materials more completely; not be wasteful and get rid of things that still had value.”

One could also remark on the value of quaint old trades like coopering. With a little curiosity (perhaps driven by a centuries-old string of DNA that loves the smell of fresh-cut lumber), artisans like Morris find ways of applying old methods in a new world. Where technology and progress can threaten to polish away the interesting edges, careful attention and a love of craft can maintain character. At the Rubin Family of Wines, Freeman and Morris are walking a two-by-four spanning the chasm between the best of then and now, and maintaining perfect balance.


To learn more about the Rubin Family of Wines, visit www.rubinfamilyofwines.com

 

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