January 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

Bringing Cooperage In-House

Napa Valley winery buys French oak to build its own barrels

by Andrew Adams

Barrel suppliers offer many ways to customize barrels including wood origin, different ways to treat and bend staves as well as unique toasts. 

One winery in Napa Valley, however, isn’t just customizing barrels to its needs but controls the entire cooperage process from stave wood to toasting. 

Caldwell Vineyard winery is located in a cave dug in the mountains of the Coombsville AVA in southern Napa County. John Caldwell founded the winery in 1999, after selling grapes to other Napa wineries from his namesake vineyard for more than a decade. 

When Caldwell purchased his Napa Valley property in 1974, he had envisioned a real estate development, but Napa County’s agricultural preservation ordinance nixed those plans, and he opted to plant vines instead. A trip to France—and a visit to Chateau Haut-Brion, in particular—inspired a passion for winemaking, and Caldwell has done much to emulate the venerable Bordeaux winery. 

Haut-Brion has its own small cooperage, and that is something Caldwell wanted to bring to Napa as well, but it took years and only came together after he was able to find someone from the United States who could make barrels in France. 

Before the winery began making its own barrels, however, the winemaking team also adjusted how it used barrels to better match the estate wines to oak and ensure a consistent profile. 

Marbue Marke, director of winemaking, joined the winery in 2007, when production was much smaller and limited to just two estate wines and the second-tier label Rocket Science. Marke made some blends with the existing wines and was later struck by how the same wine fared in different barrels. “It was amazing to me that (we were using) the same barrel, same cooper, same everything, and the quality was night and day,” he said. 

Marke shared his discovery with Caldwell. “I showed him, ‘Here’s your gold in the same barrel, same cooper and same amount of money, and the quality is not even remotely close,” he said. “The wines tasted the same when we put them all in the same trial, so it’s not us; this is not the vineyard.” 

Caldwell and Marke organized a trip to France in 2008 to study wood sourcing and the cooperage trade to develop a better system to ensure a consistent oak program. Marke determined coopers that control their own wood sourcing generally produce better barrels. That led Caldwell to look into securing his own source of timber: He could improve his wine through a consistent oak supply and also achieve his vision of an estate cooperage—but at the time it proved cost prohibitive, and the winery didn’t have the right contacts to navigate the complex French oak industry. 

Marke then designed a new barrel program to help minimize risk that involved using about 10 different cooperages that control their oak sourcing. “In the three years after we made the changes, I definitely saw a huge change in our quality,” he said. “We had a good system. It worked well for us, and the system was designed not with the idea that there was a ‘best barrel,’ but the idea of how do you match a barrel to the style of wine.” 

In 2013, the winery’s vineyard manager mentioned that a friend of his who had been building barrels at a Napa cooperage was looking for a new opportunity. Caldwell brought Ramiro Herrera in to help with barrel fermentations, and the two began talking about building barrels for the winery. 

Herrera also knew Alban Petiteaux, who had worked at the same cooperage but had started his own business as an oak consultant. 

Through Herrera, Caldwell started working with Petiteaux, who was able to find the logs. “That was how this thing kicked off, because we had somebody who was in the sourcing business,” Marke said. “The sourcing is extremely difficult. You have to know somebody who is actually certified by the French government.”  

Petiteaux didn’t only know how to purchase the wood, he also knew the master cooper who had worked in Haut-Brion’s cooperage and who would be willing to teach Herrera even more insights on the craft of making barrels. 

Everything came together in 2014, when Herrera was able to build the first 50 Caldwell barrels in time for that year’s harvest. Since then, the barrel program has steadily increased, and the barrels are now used for nearly all of the winery’s production. 

Petiteaux purchases the stave wood in France and focuses on finding oak with both tight grain and exceptional grain structure. Marke said they want staves with at least 30 months of air drying. While they have enjoyed good results with wood from the Jupilles forest, grain tightness and structure is more important than forest of origin, Marke said. Petiteaux was able to purchase a log during a recent auction, and that stave wood is currently seasoning. Marke expects to receive those barrels for the 2019 vintage, at the latest. 

Each year, Herrera flies to France and spends several weeks at a leased cooperage space in Cognac assembling and toasting the Caldwell barrels from wood purchased three years prior. Herrera also toasts and assembles puncheons for the winery. “The big win for us is we have one guy who does all the toasting,” Marke said. 

That same guy is also at the winery the rest of the year to handle any issues with the barrels he put together himself. “After he makes the barrels, he’s here,” Marke said. “He’s the one that is popping off the heads before putting in the grapes, so he’s here for the whole thing. Any issues, any leaks, he’s the guy and he’s here on-site.” 

It also means Marke is assured he’s going to get exactly what he specifies when he wants some barrels toasted a certain length of time or assembled in a certain way. The lines of communication are much more direct. 

Transitioning to essentially a single cooperage has required Marke to reevaluate the barrel program once more. “My role is to basically try and get it to replicate the success we had with multiple coopers,” he said. “It’s quite an interesting project. I’m learning more about barrels––even more than I had.” 

The trials are ongoing, as Marke constantly evaluates what toasts and techniques, such as water-bending staves, he needs to add to the barrel lineup to get the right mix of oak influences that match the Caldwell wines. The toasting is done over a traditional flame, and it’s up to Marke to determine what type of toasts and techniques are used.

He’s working with all the Bordeaux varieties plus Tannat, Syrah and Pinot Noir. He buys barrels from a few coopers as reference points so he can decide how to adjust the Caldwell line of barrels. White wine barrels are still a work in progress. 

Total yearly barrel production is now around 300, and Marke admits it’s not the most cost-effective program. He doesn’t know exactly how much each barrel costs but was willing to bet it was significantly more than just buying a new, French oak barrel from a cooper. Marke said it is worth it to Caldwell to maintain the investment.  

“John is a guy who, when he’s committed, he’s all in,” Marke says before adding, “I’m the guy who keeps trying to hold him back.” 

Since the transition to estate cooperage, Marke said he’s noticed two significant changes: The barrels have become quite consistent and are also much more structurally sound. Back when Marke was using several coopers, about 10% of the barrels he used for barrel fermentation would prove to be leakers. “That was the bet John was making: If one person is doing all the toasting, it’s all more consistent, and structurally the barrels are much better.” 

Print this page   PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION   »
E-mail this article   E-MAIL THIS ARTICLE   »
Currently no comments posted for this article.