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First Day On The Job

Whew... What a day! It's 11:00 and I can barely move my fingers to type this. I have a lot to report on my encouraging and exhausting first day, but it'll have to wait until tomorrow. Also - New pictures of the Camp Deerfield project and photos of my first day. Stay tuned!

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!

Wine & Oak: An Inseparable Pair

Recently I had the pleasure of watching Francis Durand, a master barrel cooper with the esteemed Radoux tonnellerie, build a barrel right on Deerfield's crush pad. It was an amazing experience and there were plenty of industry veterans, including Robert, who had never seen the process themselves. I videotaped the whole thing and you can check it out on Cellar Rat TV. I was fascinated by the process and it really got me thinking about the marriage between oak and wine. It is an element of winemaking that is easily overlooked. Trucks would arrive during harvest with dozens of beautiful new handmade barrels and as I helped unload them I gave little thought to the skilled craftsmen who created them or their enormous impact on the wine we were making. My perception of the grapes' journey to the glass had glossed over the entire art of coopering. The grape is grown in the vineyard and transported to the winery where it is transformed into wine and then bottled. I realize now that the fire and hammer of the cooper are just as much a part of that journey as the beaker and refractometer of the winemaker are.

Winemakers have known about the benefits of aging wine in oak for two millenia and the Roman Empire can be credited with expanding the usage of the material for constructing the barrel. There is no substitute for oak. There have been many attempts at using vessels made of other woods like cherry, pine, walnut and chestnut but none have the unique structural qualities and flavors of oak. In the barrel, oak is the right balance between hardness and softness that it is both durable and malleable enough to be shaped into a barrel. It is just porous enough to allow alcohol and water to evaporate through it, concentrating the flavor of the wine, and yet the grain is tight enough that it does not leak. The flavor that oak imparts is just as important as its ability to carefully expose the wine to minute amounts of oxygen. Compounds found in the oak and complexity yet also serve to stabilize the wine and its color. Oak further serves the winemaking process after it has been bottled. The cork tree is actually a type of oak, whose bark we remove to produce the corks so strongly associated with wine. While many alternatives, synthetic and natural, have been proposed, corks still seem to work best, allowing exactly the right amount of oxygen into the bottle to allow the wine to age gracefully. Since the beginning people have known that wine aged in oak tastes better but the science behind it has only been pursued for the last three decades or so. The process of "toasting" the wood, or putting the barrel over a wood fire fueled by more oak, adds a unique dimension to the wine. I had the opportunity to stick my nose in the barrel after Mr. Durand finished toasting it and it wasn't until I inhaled that enchanting aroma that I understood why wine and oak share such a bond - they both offer an incredibly complex and rich sensory experience that only improves when they are combined.

A Little More About Barrels

Several weeks ago I talked about the profound relationship that wine shares with oak and the importance of the barrel maker to the winemaking process. The artistry of bending the wood of the oak tree to benefit the crafting of wine extends well beyond the domain of the cooper. The winemaker chooses very carefully which vessels his wine will mature in. The choice is far more complex than simply whether to use French or American oak. At Deerfield, one of the key elements we use to create such nuanced wine is the implementation of what are known as barrel schedules, or programs. A great deal of thought and planning is done by the winemaker to create a schedule to add depth to the wine. Each wine rests in a variety of different barrels, so for example a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, maybe even just one exemplary block in a vineyard, is given a custom-tailored barrel program. What's more, when that Cabernet is included in a blend years later, a new barrel schedule is created for that blend. What is incredible to me is the understanding the winemaker has of the impact on the character of the wine that a specific barrel has. There are three factors to consider in choosing a barrel for the program. The type of oak the barrel is made of: French, American, Hungarian oak, have very different flavors. Usually, at Deerfield, a wine receives a mixture of French and American oak barrels. The overriding idea is that when the barrels are later blended together, the attributes of both will be present in the wine. The second factor is the tonnellerie, or cooperage, that produced the barrel. There is a great deal of room for expression during the creation of a barrel - the heat and duration for which the barrel is "toasted" greatly impacts the flavor of the wood. The same barrel can even be constructed out of staves of different types of oak. Or all the staves can be one type of oak and the heads another. There's lots of variation and innovation within the cooperage industry, and though barrel making is a craft steeped in tradition, ongoing experimentation has invigorated competition among the coopers. During harvest, representatives drop by with a case of beer for the crew hoping to get the ear of the winemaker and tout the strengths of their barrels. Indeed, there are many to choose from. Demptos, Radoux, Bel Air, Tonnellerie du Val de Loire, Saint martin, Kovacs Tokai, Seguin Moreau, Quintessence, Magrenan, Kelvin Cooperage, Sylvain, World Cooperage, Emeritage, Boutes Tonnellerie de France, Trust, Tonnellerie Remond are just a few brands that reside in Deerfield's cave. Each chosen for its unique qualities and carefully monitored for performance. And then many cooperages tout different lines of barrels like models of cars - luxury, durability, longevity, leather seats. The point is you've got options. Lastly, the age of the barrel (in terms of its use) is a significant factor. When a barrel is brand new it has an intense oak flavor and any wine aged in it will assume that intensity. After about four years of wine sitting in it, a barrel has pretty much used up all of the oak flavor. Barrels that are old and no longer have noticeable oak flavor are referred to as neutral barrels. They are still useful - they impart tannins and remove harsher ones and allow the wine to breathe. So usually a wine is aged in a combination of new, 1 year, 2 year, 3 year, and neutral barrels so that when the barrels are blended back together for bottling (or further blending) the resulting wine is well balanced. Also this gives the winemaker options for different blends. Perhaps a Tuscan style Sangiovese blend would benefit from a Cab Sauv that has been aging in  new barrels. Here is part of the barrel schedule for 2009. On the head of most barrels you can see the type of oak, the year the barrel was made, the cooperage and the amount of toast. If you stop by the cave take note of what barrels are being used for each wine.

How-To: Gravity Irrigated Barrel Garden

Barrels can only be used for so long before they become unfit for making wine, so every year wineries get rid of their old barrels and make room for the new. In wine country this abundance of barrels prompts people to get creative with these beautiful industry relics. I decided, like so many others, that I would like to turn a few into planters. Just one problem though: I live on a hill without any water. Carrying water up the hill all the time or lugging a super long hose up each time would be impractical, so I devised a gravity irrigated planter system. That way I only have to fill up the barrel about once a month and in wetter seasons I can also catch rainwater. I thought I’d do a little how-to article for those of you inspired to build a mini-garden yourself!  The total project cost was less than $150 and took me 8 hours to complete.

Note: At the bottom of the article is a link to a printer friendly version if you want to take the instructions into the backyard.

I was able to get all these parts at my local hardware store. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • At least 3 barrels (I used 4 but you can also just build a platform to elevate the water barrel, or just put it on a hill!)
  • 1 silicon barrel bung
  • 1 ¾” hose Pressure regulator (I used a 25psi regulator)
  • 2 ¾” mesh screen filter
  • 1 ¾” hose Y valve
  • 1 ¾” hose valve (like a faucet)
  • 2 adapters to convert ¾” hose to ¼” irrigation tubing
  • 100 ft. ¼” irrigation tubing (I actually only used about 60ft. Make sure not to get the dripping kind!)
  • 6 Tee joints for ¼” irrigation tubing
  • 8 inline drips for ¼” irrigation tubing (1/2 GPH drip rate)
  • 8 end of line drips for ¼” irrigation tubing (again ½ GPH drip rate)
  • 16 irrigation stakes
  • 4 small clips with nails (used to nail TV cable into place)
  • 2 small hook screws
  • Black electric tape
  • Silicon glue
  • 12 cubic feet of potting soil
  • Enclosure to protect against deer and birds (may not be an issue in your backyard but I definitely needed this part)

o   3 10ft. redwood benderboards

o   4 2x2 cedar stakes – 6ft. long ea.

o   ½” Staples

o   ~16 nails

o   Deer netting (I used Deer X brand – 1 package of 100’X7’ was more than enough)

  • Tools:

o   ¾” hole saw and drill

o   Skill saw

o   Hammer

o   Staple Gun

o   Barrel driver (this tool is used to remove the hoops from the barrel, you can use a small crowbar or probably a very large sturdy screwdriver)

o   Measuring tape

I was able to get my barrels for free and you probably can too. My tip is to call wineries around June or July, when they’re cleaning house for harvest. Some wineries have prearranged solutions to deal with their barrels but you’d be surprised how many people would be more than happy to have someone just take them off their hands. Ask for an old bung while you’re at it!

Ok. Now for the how-to part:

Part I: Making the water storage barrel

1.       You’ll need to remove the hoops from one side of a barrel to take the head (end piece) of the barrel off. With the barrel upright, use the barrel driver (crow bar) and hammer to knock the hoops off of the end on the ground (it’s easier to strike down than up), starting with the largest hoop. Move around the barrel in a circle, tapping in different spots on the same hoop as you go. You can watch this episode of Cellar Rat TV, where master cooper Francis Durand, of Radoux Tonnellerie, builds a barrel, to see the technique.

2.       Once the hoops are off you should be able to easily remove the head from the barrel. It’ll probably even just fall out by itself.

3.       Flip the barrel over and now replace the hoops in the same fashion. You’ll need to start with the largest hoop again and start banging it into place before the smaller ones will fit on.

4.       Now that the barrel is back together, with the head off you can drill the holes at the bottom for the valves. Use the ¾” hole saw to drill out two holes on the side of the barrel on the opposite end from the side that you removed the head from. Make sure that these holes are above the head of this end so that you don’t drill into it. You may have to drill the holes slightly above the actual bottom of where the vessel retains water because the metal hoop may be in the way. If the bunghole of the barrel is at 12 o’clock drill one of the holes at 6 o’clock and the other at 9 o’clock (or 3 o’clock depending on whether you want your water barrel to be on the right or left of your planters – you want this hole to be on side that you work on the planters because it will be a work faucet).

5.       Firmly insert the bung into the bunghole (twist it in, don’t bang it in) and seal it with the silicon.

6.       Spread some silicon around the pressure regulator and then bang it into the hole at 6 o’clock from the inside of the barrel (you’ll need to climb in) – it should be a very snug fit. Then seal both inside and outside the barrel with more silicon.

7.       Do the same for the ¾” valve (not the Y valve) into the hole at 9 o'clock.

8.       Allow the silicon to dry for at least an hour.

9.       Insert the ¾” inch mesh filter screens into the end of both pieces on the inside of the barrel.

10.   Screw the ¾” Y valve onto the pressure regulator so that it fits very tightly.

11.   Screw the 2 ¾” to ¼” adapters onto both of the Y valve ends (I needed a wrench to prevent leakage).

12.   (Optional) Take the skill saw and cut a few staves (pieces of wood that make the barrel up) out between the two center hoops of ANOTHER barrel to have a little storage space for your garden tools.

13.   Stack the water barrel on top of the barrel you just cut a few staves out of. I used a couple pieces of wood from the head of the water barrel so that the barrels could be stacked stably. Make sure that the barrels are level and stable. Be careful that they don’t tip over on you or that you don’t pinch your hand. You might need two people for this part. Point the Y valve towards the planter row and the regular valve towards the front (where you’ll work on the planters).

Part II: Making the planter beds

1.       You may want your planters to be bottomless so that the roots can grow into the soil below. If that’s the case then remove the heads first like you did with the water barrel. Do it one at a time, replacing the hoops before you do the other end, otherwise the barrel will fall apart and you’ll never get it back together.

2.       In order to cut the barrel straight across you need to measure. Measure between the two center hoops and divide by two. Then measure that length along the line between two staves and make a mark. Go around the barrel doing this every 2 or 3 staves. Then connect the dots using your measuring tape. You should have a line around the circumference of the widest part of the barrel.

3.       Put the barrel on its side and be extremely careful using the skill saw to cut down the line. I recommend cutting a length, stopping the saw, rotating the barrel a bit more and then resuming – turning as you cut is VERY dangerous.

4.       If you left the heads on, depending on what you intend to plant and what climate you’re in, you may want to drill some holes in the bottom of the planter for water drainage. You can use the hole saw for that.

5.       Arrange the planters in a row right next to your water tower with the Y valve facing the row.

Part III: Making the enclosure - This part is only necessary if deer and birds are an issue in your garden, but if they are I recommend you do this before you hook up the irrigation to your planters.

1.       Cut the bender board into 2 ten foot long pieces and 2 four foot long pieces.

2.       Nail boards to the top of the cedar stakes to make your frame.

3.       Place the frame over the planters and mark where the posts will go.

4.       Dig holes for the posts in the spots that you marked.

5.       Put the posts in the holes and pack in the dirt firmly.

6.       Take the deer netting and staple it around the frame. I used one piece to cover the back and sides and one piece to cover the top. For the front where you work, staple the netting along the top edge only. Then screw the small hook screws into the base of the two posts on the front side. This way this piece can just swing up and out of the way, letting you have full access to your planters, and when you’re done, just fasten the bottom of the net to the two hooks on the bottom of the frame.

Part IV: Hooking up the irrigation

1.       Cut 2 lengths of irrigation tubing long enough so that the tubing reaches from the Y valve to the inside of the netting enclosure.

2.       Cut one end of each tube at a 45 degree angle and insert each tube into each port of the Y valve with the adapters.  Stick the tubes through the netting.

3.       On the inside of the enclosure, take two of the T joints and insert the base of each tee joint into both tubes.

4.       Now insert one end of the irrigation tubing onto any one of the four ports. Run the tubing to the back post, closest to the water barrel, and use a piece of tape to hold it in place. Then run the tubing down the post and use a piece of tape to hold it in place a few inches below the top of the planters. Then run the tube over to the nearest planter bud, and up over the top of the bed, into the center about 6 inches and cut the tube (more is better because you can always go back and trim later).

5.       Repeat this process to measure each of the rest of the tubes to each planter. You should have all four main lines hooked up now.

6.       Use the electrical tape to neatly bundle all four lines and also to attach the lines to the post in both spots you used during the measuring process.

7.       Now take the 4 small clips and nail the irrigation tubing for each planter into place just below the edge of the back of the planter.

8.       Pull the slack out of each line and use more electrical tape to make the tubes neat in the back.

9.       Cut all of the tubes to the same length on the inside of the bed – about 6 inches.

10.   Insert the base of the remaining 4 tee joints into each tube.

11.   Cut 16 6 inch long pieces of tubing.

12.   Attach two pieces of tubing onto each of the 2 ports of each tee joint.

13.   Now attach an in-line dripper onto the end of each tube. Make sure you follow the directions on the package for the correct way to attach the drippers.

14.   Put another length of tube on each dripper.

15.   Attach the end-of-the-line dippers on the end of each of the tubes.

16.   Attach the irrigation stakes next to each of the drippers.

17.   Fill the planting beds with the potting soil and tamp the dirt down.

18.   Set the stakes so that each drip head is about halfway to the center of the planter in each quarter of the barrel.

19.   Pat yourself on the back.

Now go pick out your favorite herbs and veggies and get those beds planted! I did a test and found that you’ll have about 15 hours of irrigation time before you need to fill the barrel again. I think about an hour of drip time per day is enough so that means you can go two weeks without having to refill your system (or more if you get rain)! The faucet on the side is good to fill up a water can to get the leaves wet or rinse your hands after working in the soil. I hope all you do-it-yourself types have fun with this little project. Let me know if you dream up any improvements or awesome variations! Next I’m going to build a little fence out of barrel staves.