Selecting And Utilizing Oak Barrels In Winemaking: An Interview With A Winemaker

Much of the work we do at BarrelWise focuses on providing winemakers with the tools to better manage their barrel ageing programs. Wooden barrels have been used to store wine for millennia, and the represent a surprisingly complicated, yet fascinating winemaking tool.

Today, we sit down with Linda Trotta, Director of North Coast Winemaking for WX Brands and the winemaker behind Bread & Butter, which has been one of the fastest growing wine brands in recent years, to talk about the use of oak barrels in winemaking, and learn more about their complexities. 

Photo of Linda Trotta leaning on a rack of barrels in a winery cellar
Linda Trotta in the barrel room of one of her previous wineries. She is currently leading production of the Bread & Butter wines for WX Brands.

BarrelWise (BW): Let’s talk about oak barrels in winemaking. Can you tell us how barrels fit into the wine production process?

Linda Trotta (LT): An oak barrel is first and foremost a vessel, somewhere to store the wine before it is bottled. But what’s unique about it, in addition to its aromatic and flavor impacts on the wine, is that the wood of the barrels allows slow ingress of oxygen into the wine. This process evolves the wine – the fruit, the tannins, the flavor, aroma, and texture. For this reason, oak barrels are nearly ubiquitous for high end red wine production in Napa. At Bread and Butter, we age our small lot Napa wines in barrels for 18 to22 months, and these vessels play a key role in developing the products that our customers enjoy. 

BW: Do winemakers have to use barrels to make good wine, or are there alternatives?

LT: There are many considerations that go into deciding how to make wine, and the choice of whether to use oak barrels is no exception. Style is one - some wines out there actually don’t benefit from extended barrel ageing. Time to market is another – wine usually spends over 1 year in oak barrels to get the full stylistic benefit, and some wineries just cannot wait that long. But perhaps the most important factor is cost. Oak barrels can be extremely expensive. New French oak barrels cost in excess of US$ 1,000, and require added labor and resources to manage during wine production. For low priced wines it is hard to justify these expenses from a business standpoint. Instead, winemakers may choose from a range of other approaches, including the use of oak alternatives (small pieces of oak wood which are added to the wine in the tanks) and micro-oxygenation techniques which aim to replicate the wine-oak-oxygen dynamics facilitated by the barrels. Many lower priced wines are made this way, and the technology, as well as the winemakers’ ability to use it effectively, have improved a lot over the years.

At Bread and Butter Napa Valley we have done trials to compare the effect of oak barrels to that of the cheaper, faster alternative methods, but nothing quite matched the traditional barrel ageing for the wine styles that we pursue. For our Napa wines we use the highest quality local fruit, which ages very well in oak barrel, but also commands premium pricing for the finished wines. This gives us the financial headroom to invest in best quality processes, including oak barrel ageing. Unfortunately, not all winemakers have this headroom, and must therefore adjust accordingly. 

BW: You mentioned the different types of barrels used by the winemakers. How do you know what barrels are right for your wine?

LT: That’s a good question. For me, I try to taste other winemakers’ wine that had come from the same vineyard, or an otherwise relevant source. This gives me an insight into how certain barrel characteristics may impact the wines I make. I also cultivate relationships with cooperage reps, as they can be very helpful in selecting the right barrels for the job from their portfolios. This is very important - just last week I was meeting with a cooperage rep and we realized that we had been tasting wines together for 30years! He knows my winemaking style, what I am looking for, so the selection process is streamlined. Then, when introducing new barrels, the typical process is to buy 2 or 3, then age the wine, and see how they perform. If it works out well, buy more, if not – this is a small percentage of the blend, and hopefully won’t impact the end product too much. This is how I do it, I am sure there are other ways.

 BW: Is it hard to decipher the effect the barrel has on wine from other variables, like fruit, growing season, etc.? 

LT: Yes, sometimes it’s like a 3D jigsaw puzzle, but that’s what makes winemaking so fun!

View from a Napa winery cellar, framed by stacks of oak barrels on the sides, overlooking the vineyard and mountains in the distance.
Most Napa Valley red wines are aged in wooden barrels.

BW: What happens when you get the barrel selection wrong?

LT: Well, hopefully you don’t get it wrong on a large scale. If it’s a small percentage of barrels that didn’t work for that blend, I can move them to another program. We always try to have flexibility in the lots and can move barrels around. Not because they are bad, but because they just don’t fit the profile of wine we were going for. 

BW: So once the winemaker has found the barrels that work, why not stick with that type? Why have multiple, or keep experimenting? 

LT: This really depends on the winemaker. There are winemakers out there who identify a cooperage, toast, barrel type, and other parameters for their wines, and won’t ever mess with it. But many others believe that the layering of the various effects that different barrels can offer is what brings the complexity to the wine, makes it special and unique. 

BW: If a winemaker decided to trial new barrels, what advice can you give them to arrive at meaningful results and make the most of these trials?

LT: The big winemaking companies often have pilot wineries where they can run all kinds of experiments at scale, with almost production-level sized lots. They can trial new barrels or techniques in parallel with established ones, and very scientifically compare between the trial and the control. Unfortunately, most of us do not have this luxury, and have to learn on the go. When I try something new, it is usually a small subset of a production group, and will be bottled and packaged just the same. So I have to be very sure that the wine in trial barrels is still usable. This is where prior research comes in, like talking to peers using these barrels, and getting samples of wine made in these barrels from the cooperages. Working with the same cooperages as long as I have, I know who I can trust, whose tasting palate is similar to mine, and that gives me confidence. Then it’s all about tracking the barrel’s performance as the wine matures. This can be tricky – the wine changes a lot during the many months in the barrel. You may taste a barrel after 6 months and find that it’s not what you were hoping for, but that can be because the barrel hasn’t made its full impact yet. Then you taste it again after18 months, and it’s exactly what you wanted.

BW: What is a good trial size to balance expense with enough data and meaningful results? 

LT: I usually trial new barrels as part of larger lots so that it’s a small percentage of the whole. Typically, it is at least 2-4 barrels. This gives me a good indication of how it’s going to go. 

BW: But we also know that every barrel is unique in its own way. Have you ever seen two similar barrels produce very different results?

LT: I’ve not seen any huge differences, but often subtle ones. To this day, most wine barrels are hand-made. It’s actual people splitting the wood, managing the toasting fires, assembling the heads. So variance is bound to exist, even in barrels made by the same person. But this is also the allure of winemaking. You can never predict everything, there are always surprises, sometimes positive, and sometimes not. But there is a general standard, so we still have a good idea of what the barrels will do to the wine. 

BW: Do you find that consumers’ preferences are changing when it comes to oak impact in wine?

LT: Winemaking is very cyclical. When I first started in wine, consumers preferred low oak impact wines. Then in the 90s we saw a trend for oaky, smoky wines made with heavy toast barrels. Today, consumers are once again moving towards preferring the underlying fruit characteristics without the overpowering oak profiles in their wines, so the winemaking approaches are balancing out.

BW: As you select barrels, do you take a cross section from various barrels, or do you have a recipe?

LT: Depends on the wine. I have general guidelines. For example, I know that this vineyard or combination of vineyards is typically ~50% new oak, but I can flex it to account for vintage variation. Typically I will use 40% to60% new oak, and the rest second fill or neutral. These are general guidelines though, but nothing is hard and fast. 

BW: what happens to used barrel? Are they thrown away? 

LT: No, there is a thriving aftermarket. If the barrels are in good shape, another winery might by them as neutral vessels for storing wine. Many folks make furniture or planters out of barrels, so they are also buyers. And if the barrels are very old and completely decrepit, they can become fire food for barbeques! 

BW: Last question: is there any barrel-related advice that you could share for new winemakers, or those interested in pursuing this craft?

LT: Don’t assume that the barrel will perform the same on your wine as on someone else’s wine. It’s more complicated than that. Try to find someone who you can taste with, or talk to, and see how they choose barrels. Build relationships with your cooperage reps and be clear about what you are trying to do. Find a cooperage and a rep that you trust, don’t just buy from anyone. Do what you can to inform yourself. 

Big thank you to Linda for answering our questions about the use of oak barrels in winemaking. For anyone who has not tried Linda's Bread & Butter Napa Valley, please come by the tasting room at 3105 Silverado Trail in Napa, California, and do a tasting - you will not regret it!

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