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Winery Barrel Programmes – Barrel Stacking Arrangement Trade-Offs

A medium-size winery with a tight-stacking arrangement, and barrels laid out for topping on the floor. Source: BarrelWise

Through our work with clients, the BarrelWise team gets to spend a lot of time in winery cellars, and has developed good insights into the challenges of looking after large barrel programmes (typically over 1,000 barrels). Inherent in this process is the understanding of various choices available to winemakers in terms of barrel arrangements in the cellars, the tool for executing the barrel work, as well as the impact of various process decisions around topping, sampling and SO2 additions. This post examines the first element – the implications of barrel layout on efficiency and safety in the cellar.

Typically, wineries have two major choices to make when arranging barrels. Barrel racks can be stacked in tight rows, with no aisles between them, meaning that most barrels cannot be accessed in place. This allows for better utilization of cellar space – many wineries believe that this increases barrel storage capacity by 20-40% within the same square footage. However, this also increases barrel work costs and risks. Alternatively, barrel rack rows can be spaced wider, leaving enough space for a person, a ladder, or a scissor lift to fit in between. While this lowers cellar storage capacity, this arrangement enables in-place barrel work which lends itself to safer, more efficient barrel work methods.

Tight stacking barrels poses several efficiency and safety challenges

This arrangement is generally used by facilities working with thousands of barrels at a time, where storage capacity is a major production bottle neck. Unfortunately, this comes with a number of challenges. Firstly, sufficient space must still be left free to accommodate whole barrel groups laid out on the floor. Secondly, this process generally requires at least two cellar hands – one working the forklift and topping the barrels, and another collecting/placing bungs, taking samples, and adding SO2 where needed. The process is relatively slow, and work times of 2 to 4 minutes per barrel are common. This can be reduced by allocating more workers to the tasks, increasing labour costs. Thirdly, this arrangement creates additional workplace hazards from constant forklift activity. Further issues arise if the forklift driver lacks training and experience – while the risks of dropping barrels, or even collapsing stacked racks by a qualified forklift driver are relatively low, the consequences and potential financial damage are extremely high, meaning that these risks 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. Source: BarrelWise

Tight stacking specialisation at big wineries

Wineries with tens of thousands of barrels will often set up a flow barrel work process (as opposed to the batch process of de-stacking one group at a time). Here, a dedicated forklift driver moves barrels to the floor. After placing down the first rack, they immediate drive get the next rack. In this time, a crew of 2 (or more) cellar hands execute all the barrel work, so that 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 back 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. Source: BarrelWise

In-place topping sacrifices capacity for safety and efficiency

Where cellar space is not a key constraint, wineries typically leave access aisles between the rows. Cellar crews can then access barrels for in-place topping, sampling and SO2 additions. Work times here vary widely, depending on whether a ladder or a scissor lift is used, how many people are working simultaneously, and the height of the barrel stacks, with 1-3 minutes per barrel being a rough estimate. Unless the crews are climbing on the barrels themselves, the in-place method is by far the safest, as it eliminates forklift usage, and all risks associated with moving the barrel racks. Still, the process is not perfect – frequent trips up the ladder are tiring for the crews, while scissor lifts require at least two people to operate safely, and still run the risk of collapsing barrel stacks if improperly controlled. Wine spillages may be difficult to clean up, and wine may remain and spoil in hard-to-reach areas.

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

The BarrelWise approach

At BarrelWise we believe that whatever cellar arrangement the winery chooses, we can help to improve the barrel work process. In tight-stacking barrel arrangements, the system’s fast topping, sampling and So2 addition functionality enables fewer people to execute the same amount of work, in the same amount of time, leading to direct labour cost savings. When topping in place, BarrelWise offers time saving and efficiency to each crew members, reducing the number ladder trips, while eliminating spillages and associated sanitation challenges. This leads to better labour utilisation, again, lowering costs. 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, while eliminating spillages, as well as protecting the wine from unwanted air and microbial ingress.

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

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