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About Barrels

I've been working a lot more inside the cave recently, which is something I really enjoy. The floor of the cave is paved with really smooth cement and I use a skateboard to get around everywhere. It's not really conventional but I think that making wine is all about being unconventional. I suppose that's a very Californian approach to winemaking and I'm sure that the exact opposite is true in France but we'll talk more about the West Coast approach some other time. So far I've been doing two important jobs: Topping the wine barrels and gassing them.

Topping wine barrels isn't very difficult and it's one of the only things at the winery that I know how to do without asking for any assistance. The only thing that makes it challenging is when the barrels are stacked really high or too close to a wall. Before I go any farther I want to get something out of the way: The hole on the side of the barrel where you put the wine in is called the bunghole. The thing you put in the bunghole is called a bung. Done snickering? Ok, good, I'm glad you got that out of your system. Unlike racking, barrel topping is a straightforward term. As the wine continues fermenting in the barrel a small amount of it evaporates. That leaves room in the barrel for air to seep in. And because the last thing you want is for your wine to be exposed to air for a year, Cellar Rats like myself can be seen scurrying from barrel to barrel, topping them off. For the same reason that you top off, you can't leave any half-full barrels lying around. So any wine that's leftover is put in a metal keg (that air can't seep into) which nitrogen is then added to in order to force out any O2. If you can, you use the same wine to top off the other barrels but most of the time there's not any leftovers of that particular wine to use. So the standard practice is to use another similar wine and because such a small amount is added there is no real change. A fine wine like the ones that Deerfield produces is made using the cleanest practices possible. And so, even for a simple thing like adding a little bit of wine to a barrel, strict sanitation procedures are observed: I scrub around the bung using proxy and citric; Then I rinse with some water; Then I remove the bung and place it upside down on the barrel; If the bung is dirty I replace it with a clean one; I add the wine using a sanitized air pump; Then I put the bung back and the barrel is rinsed again; Lastly I spray a solution of sulphur dioxide to kill any lingering bacteria. Typically I'll do this for several hundred barrels in a day.

The other thing I've been doing is gassing the empty barrels. When the barrels sit empty in the cave lots of bad things can happen. Between beetles and bacteria, a winemaker needs an offensive weapon to make sure those fine oak barrels stay usable until they're next needed for service. So I spray a gaseous form of SO2 into the barrels and stick a little Dixie cup in the bunghole and slap a piece of masking tape on it for good measure. I learned the hard way the importance of wearing a gas mask while doing this. I was coughing and wheezing for a good thirty minutes. So now I wear this big awesome Darth Vader looking thing whenever I'm adding the gas. I also wear my big DJ-style headphones while I work in the cave. The effect is that I look kind of like one of the aliens from the Fifth Element.

Well I've got one more story from this past week but I am exhausted so it will have to wait until tomorrow! I'll be talking about decanting and the virtues of proper bin-city planning. Cheers!

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Reader Comments (3)

You might consider stand up comedy as a side line. Snickering at Bungholes, Hippo Fridges, and 5th Element safety devices, all viewed as a blur from a skateboard. A Neo-Traditionalist Rat.

August 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPete

The wood in the barrel acts like Gortex. The wine evaporates through the wood but the air does not come in as fast as the wine goes out. The liquid forms a vapor barrier on the inside of the barrel. You notice when you pull a bung from a barrel that has not been topped, there is the wooshing sound of a vacuum.

There is a tiny bit of air that gets through the wood and that accounts for the aging process. Also air is introduced during the topping process, also contributing to the barrel aging process, which in reality is an extremely slow and controlled oxidation. If the barrel is not topped for a long time then the empty section on top of the wine will get dry enough to let too much air into the barrel, hence the regular topping, performed every two or three weeks for every barrel in the cave.


August 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Rex, winemaker

i swear i learn so much from these it

August 24, 2009 | Registered CommenterCarmen

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