Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Art of Cooperage

Early yesterday morning I drove from northern Sonoma County 'over the hill' to the town of Napa. I was due at Demptos Cooperage by 7:30AM. This was my second visit to Demptos, and I was set to do some photography for the wine exhibit. As soon as I arrived Master Cooper Will Jamieson greeted me in the front lobby and quickly escorted me to the 'production' end of the building.

This opportunity was a real treat for me. I've been in the wine business in one capacity or another for over twenty years but this was the first time I had ever been able to photograph in a cooperage facility. As Will told me...they get started working early. I wanted to see the entire process from beginning to end and my 7:30AM arrival was not at all early by their standards. When I arrived everything was already humming along like a well tuned engine. Everywhere I walked there was movement and activity....barrels being rolled from one stage of completion to the next, the constant sound of hammers pounding hoops, fires being stoked for toasting, forklifts replenishing spent stacks of staves, etc. This was some place, it was very impressive to witness the level of skill and the work intensity that was in harmony all around me.

I found myself spending most of my time in the room where the firing of barrels was done first to bend the staves and secondly to toast the insides. This room was somewhat darker than other parts of the facility. Metal 'fire pots' about 12"x14" where lined up on the concrete floors. Scraps of wood were used to keep the fires burning with flames of about 2 to 3 feet in height. The smells in the room were that of sweet oak toasting to perfection. I would describe the feel of the room as strangely romantic in a medieval sort of way. First, barrels with hoops only on one end were lined up in front of the heating fire pots. A worker then sprayed the waiting barrels with a water hose to thoroughly coat the wood. These barrels were then placed over the burning fire pots to heat the staves. Next the heated barrels were moved to a large hydraulic machine that would compress the open end of the heated staves and place temporary 'work hoops' over the end giving it the shape of a wine barrel. From here the barrels were placed again over fire pots...this time to toast the insides.

Toasting the insides of a wine barrel adds to the complexity of flavors passed on to the wine. To a winemaker, barrels are what spices in a spice rack are to a chef. You add unique flavors and characteristics to a wine when it is barrel aged and/or barrel fermented. There are many variables at play...much more than just 'French or American Oak'. Within the term French Oak you have many, Allier Oak, Troncais Oak, Nevers Oak, Limousin Oak, Vosges Oak and more! Each of these oaks has it's own unique characteristics, grain structures and most importantly to the winemaker...flavor profiles. Then you have American Oak, and Hungarian Oak...and even combination barrels...get the picture, lot's of choices...just like that spice rack to a chef.

After the barrel toasting is completed the barrels were rolled to a worker in a corner of the same room where the bung hole was drilled and then cauterized with a hot iron device. As Will explained to me the cauterization of the bung seals it and ensures smoothness. After this step, the barrels were rolled out of the firing room and into an adjacent area where the barrels were fitted for heads, sanded smooth and fitted with the final hoops. Next they moved over to a worker that pressure tested them and finally sent to another area where a laser engraver finished each barrel with the logo of Demptos and the winery that would soon become home.

The photograph above shows a worker placing a barrel over a fire pot for toasting. The photos below show barrels be heated for bending (left) and a worker cauterizing a bung (right).

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Restoring the Nicolini Wine Pumps

Some aspects of the production of this exhibit are not necessarily rewarding...just time spent working on a task. Other aspects have been very rewarding. The restoration of the Nicolini pumps have been just that. Chris Corley, the winemaker at Monticello Vineyards in Napa Valley gave me these two old pumps last year. They had been sitting out behind the winery for quite a while. I remember having to get some help from one of the cellar workers to kill all the yellow jacket nests that had taken up residence in the pumps. They were rusty and old, the wiring was patched and taped together and the wheels needed grease. But to me they were beautiful. Several years ago I saw a photograph in a wine book of a cellar in Bordeaux that had one of these pumps transferring juice...shining in red & chrome.

The pumps were moved to my exhibit storage room in Cloverdale, California and readied for transport to Texas. I started working on "Nicolini #1" toward the end of May. I completed restoration on it June 15th. I'm currently working on "Nicolini #2" now. It is very similar to the first pump but a slightly different model. This work has been hard and dirty, but I've really enjoyed it. The pumps are being stripped down to about 200 pieces. All paint is removed down to bare metal. The parts are then dipped in an etching solution to help the new primers adhesion...primed, repainted and rebuilt.

The photo above shows a restored "Nicolini #1" complete with new wiring, tri-clover fittings and hose.

The photo below shows the condition the pumps were in when work began.

(The is of "Nicolini #2 before starting to take it apart.)