Mourning wood

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“Oh yeah. Oh yeah.” That’s Mike Panczak, the winemaker at White Hall Vineyards when I ask him if he’s paying more these days for the oak barrels he uses to age his wines. Barrels that used to cost $700 or $800 each are now at about $1,000, he tells me. I put the same question to Stephanie Puckett, co-winemaker at Lovingston Winery, and get the same answer: Since the winery started in 2005, the barrels they were buying for $600 to $700 are now over $1,000.

To winemakers, the question of whether to use oak barrels to age their wines, and what sort of barrels to use, often comes down to money. To get the kind of taste that sells, you need oak. Oak barrels impart flavor to the wine, soften the tannins by allowing tiny bubbles of oxygen to pass through, and allow water and alcohol to evaporate out, helping concentrate the wine. But brand new French oak barrels, the ne plus ultra of wine containers, are very expensive, and with the dollar falling steadily against the Euro, they’ve only gotten more so.

So what’s a local winemaker to do? “Almost everybody’s looking for alternatives to French oak,” Panczak says. One option is to use barrels made from American oak, something that most wineries do to a limited extent already. But American oak imparts a harsher flavor, and is generally acknowledged to be inferior to French oak. A cheaper alternative to French barrels is kind of the holy grail for American wineries. Chad Zakaib, general manager of Jefferson Vineyards, tells me that they spend thousands of dollars a year testing new barrels, but nothing has yet to come close to the taste imparted by the French wood. Wisely, Jefferson Vineyards has already stocked up on new barrels for 2008, mainly because they knew the price was going to rise.

There are many ways to “cheat” and get some of the same effects without using barrels. “I’ve actually put some [wine] in stainless steel and aged it in stainless with oak chips,” Panczak says. Oak chips or oak staves placed in the wine are commonly used alternatives to oak barrels, although few winemakers would use those methods on their top-end wines. Panczak also tells me that he has used more micro-oxygenation, a mechanical method for mimicking the softening air bubbles that seep into wood barrels. I ask Puckett if the cost of barrels has caused Lovingston to make any changes. “Not really,” she says. “If we’re doing something right, we’re not going to screw it up by cutting corners.” But it’s not that simple. White Hall has 110 French oak barrels, and they have to replace about four to eight depending on the year. At the new price, that could mean a hefty additional yearly cost, not an easy thing to swallow in an industry constantly trying to shake the charge that it’s too expensive.

Is all of this George Bush’s fault? “The exchange rate and fuel costs are being blamed for everything,” Zakaib says, “but the fact is that French oak barrels are a scarce commodity.” The wood for the best French barrels comes from only four forests, and with the demand for barrels soaring worldwide, and with the Euro as a convenient excuse, basically it’s a great time to price gouge. “2008,” Zakaib says, “is going to be the year of the ass whipping of the American Consumer.”

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