In eighth year of this column, coming up with something new for Father’s Day put me over a barrel trying to roll out something fresh.
Then—inspiration. What DIY dad wouldn’t want to know how a cooper makes a wine barrel?
• Wine barrels are made from straight-grain strips of oak so wood doesn’t break when bent. Staves must be cut perfectly, then aged to remove harsh tannins.
• Staves are rounded on the outside and shaved on the inside, which helps in bending. Staves are wider in the middle than on the ends to achieve the bowed barrel shape.
• Barrels are assembled—typical barrel requires 25 to 30 staves—and a metal hoop is placed on one end. At this stage, the barrel looks like a flared skirt topped with a metal belt.
• Barrel is put upright, drenched with water, and a fire is lit inside. Heat and humidity allow staves to be bent by a large vice, slowly pulling staves together at the flared end. Because of careful shaving of the staves, the distinctive bulge forms in the middle as the staves are squeezed together. Metal hoops are hammered home as barrel forms.
• The cooper next starts a fire inside the barrel on the wood to “toast” the interior. Toasting affects the final wine flavor, so this is particularly artisanal element of the effort.
• The cooper cuts a groove inside the top and bottom of the barrel to receive end pieces. Hoops are relaxed to allow the barrel to expand and receive the end pieces. Barrel is squeezed together and hoops re-applied.
• Finally, strips of straw are wedged into any tiny cracks, the barrel is sanded to achieve a finished look, and hoops used in making are replaced by showier finishing hoops.
Wine barrels are different than whiskey barrels. Whiskey barrels are utilitarian holding vessels for four-plus years. Wine barrels hold wine for nine months to two-plus years and are displayed. As one cooper puts it, “a whiskey barrel is a vat, a wine barrel is furniture.” American oak barrels cost $350-$600; French oak barrels $800-$4,000; standard barrels hold 59-60 gallons.
Last round: Father’s Day toast—May you live to be so old your best vintage wine is past its prime.
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