We were so lucky to be able to visit Claude Gillet and his wine barrel making facility that is located in Saint Romain, France. Claude Gillet has a really nice French Oak Barrel Making operation that is really small. It was amazing how most of the steps in making barrels were hand crafted, and not automated.
Small barrel makers were slowly going extinct because there was a time when aging wine in oak was not fashionable. These days, probably thanks partly to Robert Parker who likes highly oaked wines, many California wineries are making oaked wines. We had a discussion about oak supply, and is it possible that there will be a day that we will not be able to get oak to age wine in. The truth is that the world still has Sudden Oak Death fungus (a relative of the potato famine fungus) and parts of European and American oak forests have collapsed from this disease. Talking with Maurice and Henrietta about the state of the Netherlands oak forests, and they replied that they are having a problem now Sudden Oak Death. Because the cause is a fungus, it is difficult to treat because we (all in the world) do not have the technology to get rid of most fungus. As an example, when humans have fungal infections in their lungs, there is no medicine that can be taken to rid the lungs of fungus, and in general, the only alternative is to cut out the infected part of the lungs. If there is anyone out there who knows how to rid the world of Sudden Oak Death fungus, and can come up with a medication that can rid the body of inhaled fungal diseases, you can be a world hero.
From what I understand, there are 2 oak forests in France used for oak barrels. French oak is quite special, and is considered the best for aging wine. Other areas may produce oak for barrels like Hungary, Bulgaria, America, but many good wine makers choose French oak, or a combination of French and other oak to age their wines. On this day, they were making barrels for a Carano, a well respected wine making family in N. Califronia. Someone from Carano had to know what they were doing when they decided on partnering with Claude Gillet.
It was amazing to me how much was done by hand at the Claude Gillet barrel making plant. Oak planks that looked like 2x4s (but not 2x4s as they are sized specifically for barrel needs), are delivered to the plant. There is one guy who is in charge of cutting each barrel plank to the right height. There is another guy who is in charge of shaping each plank into its slightly curved trapezoid (trapezium), so that once they are placed end to end, they will fit into a circle.
Each oak stave circle is hand made, and are quite heavy. Oak is really dense and the iron metal bands around the barrel are also heavy. At Claude Gillet's facility, we saw a woman working here lifting and moving the barrel circles because this is all done by hand, not by fork lift that might damage the word or barrels. This job is usually done by men, only because it is such heavy work. It was amazing to me how much care went into creating each barrel. I suppose it would be really expensive to ruin a barrel, and that is lost profit. Plus, I just think that this facility appreciates working in the traditional ways.
After the oak staves are pressed into a barrel shape, the open barrel is fired to light, medium or heavy toast, as per the client wants. There are only 3 barrels toasted at time. One employee takes the barrel and lifts it onto the fire source. The fuel is the scraps of oak that were cut and shaved off of the planks when making the staves. The employee watches over each barrel with care, and "eyeballs" the level of toasting. This is definitely an art form and something that cannot be automated because of weather and atmospheric conditions. It might take 10 minutes on a hot dry summer day, or 1 hour on a cold rainy winter day to toast a barrel to the right level.
There is one stop in the barrel making that is truly automated now, and that is the laser burning of the words on top of the barrel. This one has Claude Gillet's logo, and Heavy Toast etched on to the top. This all used to be burned in by hand, but was quite time consuming. Since laser etching does not impact the barrel quality, and saves so much time, I think it is a good idea.
one part of the process
How barrels are made at Claude Gillet's is truly an art form. I appreciate the gracious hospitality everyone showed us, and I hope this blog post honors their hard work and artistry.