The Arduous Task of Barrel Trials
Winemaker Kevin Willenborg is known for being relatively soft spoken and even-keeled, but there is one thing he does that never fails to rankle his cellar crew: his insistence on labor-intensive oak barrel trials.
“There is no denying that this level of barrel experimentation is a pain,” Kevin says. “But it is something that keeps us on our toes and aware of any opportunities to enhance quality, so from my perspective, it must be done.”
In fact, Kevin has been doing it for so long now that it is considered one of his signatures, dating back more than 30 years to stints in Napa Valley, Canada, Santa Ynez Valley and, today, in Paso Robles.
Indeed, Kevin stages a new barrel trial each year, involving approximately 30 barrel types spanning a variety of coopers with variations in wood sourcing, seasoning time, grain tightness, toasting level and more. When comparing one barrel type to another, he buys two of each. He also rounds up a pair of used barrels that he calls his “controls,” because older barrels impart very little oak influence. He then fills them all with red wine from the same lot, and ages the wine for up to two years so that he can compare and evaluate their impact over time.
The challenge is that when a wine ages in the barrel, it must be periodically “racked”—that is removed and then returned to barrels in order to aerate the wine and remove solids that settle to the bottom of the barrel.
Normally, when racking a specific wine lot, the cellar crew will empty all of the barrels into a large stainless steel tank, wash the barrels, and then simply fill them back up from that source tank. But in the barrel trial program, the wine must be racked and returned to the exact same barrel it came from.
“It is very inefficient and time intensive to empty and refill each barrel on an individual basis,” Kevin explains. “It’s not something the cellar crew looks forward to, but when the time comes, they buckle down and do a great job of it.”
The return on this labor investment, however, is significant. “We source barrels from a variety of coopers who make them from different types of American, French and Hungarian oak, all with a dizzying array of treatment options,” Kevin says. “By conducting these trials through blind tastings, I can unbiasedly sort through all of these options and evaluate how they shape our wines.”
Most notable in this effort is the fact that one size never fits all when it comes to barrel selection. “There are barrels that I really liked using for Cabernet Sauvignon while making wine in Napa Valley, but there are others I prefer for our Paso Cabernets,” Kevin states. “Each region has its own character, as does each vineyard. That is one good reason why these barrel trials are so important, because they allow us to discover and isolate precisely what is best for the wines of Vina Robles.”