It’s no secret: Winemakers take their barrels very seriously, which makes the following true story sound almost comical. When asked which is his most important tool in barrel selection? Steve Girard, owner of Benton-Lane Winery, replies: “My cheese grater.”
The longtime winemaker told the story about how his cooperage, the company that makes barrels, started sending him different barrels from what he’d selected. On his next barrel trip to Burgundy, he brought a cheese grater with him. Walking among the impressively tall stacks of drying staves, he rubbed them with his grater. He noted the aromatics, which he later compared to the barrels he was shipped. If they didn’t match his descriptions, he returned the barrels.
Much like an artist’s palette adds vibrancy and dimension to a canvas, a winemaker’s choice of barrel has a significant impact on wine. And like the painter’s range of color, there’s a multitude of options in a cooperage. From the type of wood (oak, acacia, chestnut…) to the wood’s origin (Oregon, France, Hungary, Russia…), to the grain, the toast, the size of vessel and whether the barrel is new, used or neutral, all these elements impart specific aromas, flavors and textures to a wine.