Through our work with clients and the time spent in winery cellars, BarrelWise has developed good insights into winery barrel management. Inherent in this process is the understanding of various choices available to winemakers in terms of barrel stacking arrangements. Deciding which arrangement will optimize barrel work tasks, such as topping wine, sampling, and SO₂ additions is key. This post examines the first element of winery barrel management – the implications of barrel stacking arrangements in the cellar.

Typically, wineries have two major choices to make with barrel stacking arrangements. One option is to stack barrels in tight rows, with no room in aisles to access barrels in place. Many believe that tight rows increase barrel storage capacity in a winery by 20-40% within the same square footage. However, lack of barrel access increases barrel work costs and risks.  Alternatively, leaving wider rows between barrel stacks allows enough space for a person, ladder, or even a scissor lift. While this barrel stacking arrangement reduces cellar storage capacity, it enables safer, and more efficient in-place barrel work.

The challenges of tight barrel stacking arrangements

This arrangement is generally used by facilities working with thousands of barrels at a time, and limited storage capacity. Unfortunately, this comes with several challenges. Firstly, sufficient space must be left to accommodate whole barrel groups laid out on the floor. Secondly, this process is inefficient, as barrels are repeatedly moved back and forth. It often requires multiple workers to drive the forklift, top barrels, add sulfites, etc. and can take 2 to 4 minutes per barrel. Allocating additional workers to the job can be reduced this time, but increase labour costs. Thirdly, this barrel stacking arrangement creates workplace hazards from constant forklift activity. Further issues arise if the forklift driver lacks training and experience. The risk of dropping barrels, or even collapsing stacked racks increases with forklift inexperience. The consequences and potential financial damage are extremely high with such risk and should not be ignored.

Large winery cellar with tightly stacked barrel rows. The open space accommodates de-stacking of barrels to the floor for topping. Photo: BarrelWise

Specialized tight barrel stacking arrangements at large wineries

Wineries with tens of thousands of barrels may run a flow barrel work process as part of their winery barrel management. Here, a dedicated forklift driver moves barrels to the floor. After placing down the first rack, they immediately drive get the next rack. In this time, a crew of (typically) 2 or more cellar hands execute all of the barrel work. By the time the forklift returns with the second rack, work on the first rack is complete. The forklift picks up the first rack to return to storage and returns with the third rack needing work. This process flows uninterrupted, and if executed well, per-barrel time can be reduced to ~30 seconds.

Continuous flow system: dedicated forklift driver with 3 ground crew. Photo: BarrelWise

Topping wine barrels in place: Reduced capacity for increased efficiency

Where cellar space is not a key constraint, wineries typically leave access aisles between the rows and also utilize vertical spacing. Cellar crews can then access barrels for topping wine, sampling and SO₂ additions. Work times here vary, with 1-3 minutes per barrel as a rough estimate. Time spent on tasks depends on how the barrel is accessed, number of people allocated, and barrel stack height. Topping wine in-place is by far the safest, eliminating risks associated with forklifts and moving barrel stacks. Keeping barrels in place also allows you to track individual barrel locations, providing efficiency and ease in finding barrels for work tasks. Still, the process is not perfect, frequent trips up the ladder is tiring for workers. Lastly, wine spillages may be difficult to clean up, and may remain in hard-to-reach areas.

A cellar had climbing the barrel racks. This approach is still common in the smaller wineries, despite the hazards. Photo: BarrelWise

The BarrelWise approach - optimizing your winery barrel management

At BarrelWise we believe that whatever barrel stacking arrangement is chosen, we can help improve the barrel work process. The systems fast wine topping, sampling, and SO₂ addition functionality reduces labor time and costs in tight barrel stacking arrangements. When topping wine in place, BarrelWise offers time savings and efficiency to each crew member. In all arrangements, the consistent, repeatable workflow enabled by BarrelWise allows even the inexperienced cellar hands to execute barrel work to the highest standards of quality.

A cellar worker utilizing the efficient ‘one-touch’ barrel work approach of the BarrelWise system. Photo: BarrelWise