The Evolution of American Oak

It happens almost every time. American oak comes up in a conversation, and I see it: that subtle flinch, a pinch of the lips, maybe a cocked eyebrow. As a subject, American oak seems to be forever filed away under “things sommeliers know they hate.” And yet, this hypothetical person, our imagined skeptical sommelier, would likely never turn down a glass of López de Heredia, well-aged Grange, Ridge Monte Bello, or Pappy Van Winkle.

This is not to say that American oak shouldn’t be regarded with some apprehension. A historically uneven reputation for quality and poor application by certain wineries has burned consumers and professionals alike. But outright dismissal is not appropriate, either. Considering the vital role it continues to play in some of the world’s most iconic wines, along with recent qualitative improvements, American oak deserves a second look.

The History of American Oak

“What people often don’t realize is that, as recently as 1900, the barrel was the most popular container in the world,” says Jason Stout, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development for Independent Stave, the largest producer of American oak barrels in the US. “But today, aside from a handful of specialty items like Tabasco, oak barrels are really only used for alcoholic beverages.”

Stout’s point is fascinating. Not only were barrels the preeminent vessel for small goods and liquids at the turn of the 20th century, but they had held that position for around 2,000 years. Early records are murky, but the barrel as we know it (multiple pieces of wood bent into shape by fire) is thought to have been invented by Spanish Celts sometime around the fifth century BC. Adopted and then spread by a variety of forces, including the Romans and colonizing Europeans, the barrel’s importance grew and grew, as it transported a vast range of items including oil, ammunition, foodstuffs, building materials, currency, and all manner of beverages to the far corners of the world. It wasn’t until the triple advent of cardboard, plastic, and stainless steel during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that its reign was interrupted, and the barrel was relegated to the cellars, caves, and barns of the wine and spirits industry.

According to Roman historians, clay amphora remained the preferred container for wine until sometime between the first and third centuries AD, when the barrel finally won out. Originally, and for a long time, wine was kept in barrel for ease of transport rather than for its effect on flavor, and it was often served directly from the keg. Eventually, however, the gustatory signature of the barrel began to be regarded favorably, and the barrel’s role shifted from mere vessel to that of enological implement. This became especially true after WWII, when an increasing number of wineries stopped shipping casks to merchants and turned to estate bottling.

When the American wine industry was enjoying its first bloom during the second half of the 19th century, the majority of the wood it employed was either redwood, which had the benefit of growing on the West Coast, or American white oak, which had to be shipped across the country from eastern forests. Larger format vessels were more common, and a handful of the more widely traveled producers such as Inglenook and Beringer brought in large European oak ovals for their own use. American oak barrels were even being exported at this time, most notably to Spain. López de Heredia has been solely reliant on American oak since their first vintage in 1877. They explain simply, “This was the oak available, as well as better priced.”

By the early 1900s, however, the aforementioned advances in material science crippled the American cooperage industry, and Prohibition only hastened the decline. Things picked up again quickly upon repeal—at least for the spirits industry—when the 1935 Federal Alcohol Administration Act mandated that anything labeled bourbon be aged in new oak. The wine industry, however, was slower to recover. During those first wet decades, most wineries continued their pre-Prohibition reliance on large format vessels, often older, while the few that looked to smaller oak for aging typically turned to used bourbon barrels. Tim Mondavi remembers his days at Charles Krug: “We would buy used whiskey barrels, rinse them out, and fill them with wine.” Though this is certainly crude by today’s standards, many of the wines aged in such barrels have developed quite beautifully over time.

Starting with Hanzell in the late 1950s, a growing minority of producers began to import or purchase small French barriques for aging, though this wouldn’t become commonplace until the mid- to late-1970s, when the economics of making wine in California allowed for such expenditures. But though a reliance on French oak continued to escalate, some producers stuck to their roots. Ridge and Silver Oak, founded in 1962 and 1972 respectively, have almost solely relied on American oak since their inceptions. Other producers have maintained a proprietary combination of French and American oak. Heitz Cellars in Napa still boasts a handful of rather old, massive American oak tanks in which they age some of their reds, while Mayacamas is a virtual museum of older American oak. Their cramped and curious Mount Veeder winery features large ovals dating as far back as the 1920s, fermentation tanks from the 1950s, large upright aging tanks from the 1970s, and barrels from the 1990s.

Though the American wine industry was growing exponentially, American coopers were slow to adapt, sticking to their traditional methods of craftsmanship—kiln drying the staves, bending them into place with steam, and charring the insides. While this was ideal for whiskey, it was often too blunt and rough for wine, especially once French barrels became easier to acquire. In the 1980s, however, two forces of fashion colluded to alter the course of American cooperage. As the popularity of vodka and other clear spirits skyrocketed, the brown spirits industry took a dive. Simultaneously, California wine production spiked, especially that of oaky Chardonnay, prompting many coopers to adopt European practices such as air-drying the staves and using fire rather than steam to bend them into place, thereby differentiating wine barrels from whiskey barrels.

McGinnis Wood Products in Cuba, Missouri, has been owned and run by the same family since 1968, and the trajectory of this cooperage mirrors many that are still in existence today. Initially, they sold wood only to whiskey coopers, but by the 1980s, the decline of that industry left them without enough clients. Realizing they needed to adapt to stay in business, Don McGinnis explains that they purchased equipment from a bankrupt cooper in Vancouver that had specialized in crafting barrels for the fish market and modernized the materials. They began making their own barrels in 1986. In the early 90s, they expanded operations once again to include kits for making wine barrels, all of which are currently purchased, assembled, and distributed by Demptos. Their major markets today are the United States, Spain, and France.

Independent Stave boasts a longer history but a similar path. They too began by just making staves in 1912 and graduated to whiskey barrels in the early 1950s. They jumped to wine barrel production in the early 1980s—at first just American, but they added French oak to their repertoire in 1990 after purchasing a mill in France. “We are proud of our heritage, and proud of American oak barrels,” Stout reassures me, “but you have to be careful not to be known just for making just one thing. We are now one of the top five producers of French barrels as well, and that’s an important part of the prestige.”

While it’s fairly unusual for an American cooperage to expand into France, it has become common for French cooperages to set up shop in the states. Demptos, Seguin Moreau, and Taransaud are among the prestigious French coopers to form American outposts; even François Frères partnered briefly with a cooperage in Oregon from 1993 to 2000. This French invasion has done much to elevate the caliber of product coming out of the US as a whole. Canton Cooperage, owned by Taransaud since 1988, seems to be leading the charge in terms of quality. They are the preferred (American) cooper of Turley and are also well represented in the cellars at Ridge. Bruno Rémy, an enologist and VP of Sales and Marketing for Canton, explains, “In 2002, Canton started offering barrels made from staves that were air-dried for three years. We were the first to do this, and in 2005, we introduced a barrel whose staves were aged for four years. Our barrels can be very, very subtle. Many clients tell us that in blind tastings they can’t necessarily tell the difference [between French and American].”

Though the quality across the board is undoubtedly finer today, some producers have always been able to attain a high level of product by working closely with coopers. Paul Draper of Ridge has been particularly hands on and has advised dozens of American coopers since starting at Ridge in 1969. For decades, he travelled regularly to Missouri and Kentucky, forming many close relationships along the way. On account of this intimacy, Draper was able to personally select his staves, among other allowances. One now-defunct cooper even promised Draper he wouldn’t let his team work on Ridge barrels on Mondays, lest they “still be wobbly from the weekend.”

This level of customization is now quite common. World Cooperage reports that 95% of their barrels are made to order, crafted specifically to meet the requirements of their clients. Still, some wineries prefer an even more direct involvement. Vega Sicilia, Finca Torremilanos, and López de Heredia ship American staves to Spain, which are then assembled by their own coopers.

Though from a distance it appears that the American oak industry has only grown and improved since the bleak days of Prohibition, no business is bulletproof. The sister industry to cooperage is hardwood, i.e., flooring and paneling. Twenty-five times more oak is harvested for hardwood than for barrels each year. When the American housing market crashed in 2008, the hardwood industry found itself over a barrel, so to speak, and reverberations deepened the hit the coopering industry was already taking from the temporary decline in high-end wine and spirit consumption. Many stave mills and coopers closed, especially the smaller and newer ones that didn’t have the client base and logger relationships of the larger operations.

What no one predicted, however, was that the market crash would be followed almost immediately by an enormous boom in American craft distilling. This sudden demand for barrels couldn’t have come at a worse time, and coopers struggled against their deficit to meet the rising need. The result was a price surge that has since settled out, but the small batch distilling movement is still going strong. This is good news for American coopers, who are also contending with the increasing sophistication of oak chips and other barrel substitutes. As Chris Cottrell from Bedrock Wine Company, explains, “A lot of the appeal of American oak barrels has been that they were simply cheaper, but several hundred dollars a pop is still a significant expense. And now you see these really high-quality oak chips available, and it’s stealing some of their clientele.”

That said, business is still robust. Though American coopers are a tight-lipped bunch and generally refuse to disclose production figures, Don McGinnis has done the math. “I did a talk for the forestry department the other day, and we estimate that close to three million American oak barrels—for both wine and spirits—were made last year. To put that in context, less than 800,000 barrels were made in 1986.” Prices continue to rise as well. Wines & Vines reported in December of 2016 that the average price for a new French oak barrel rose from approximately $525 in 2002 to a projected $900 in 2017. Eastern European barrels experienced a similar jump from $460 to $800, while American barrels increased from just over $300 to just under $500. And these figures are just the average; it is not uncommon to hear of a premium French barrel selling for over $1,000.

Biology, Not Necessarily as Destiny

Wine barrels can be crafted from many types of wood (acacia and chestnut are popular examples), but oak is by far the historical favorite. Its particular combination of qualities—widely available, relatively lightweight, easy to work, resilient, liquid-tight, and comparatively neutral—make it especially well suited for the job.

Within the oak genus Quercus are over 300 individual species, but only a few are appropriate for wine barrel production. Consider the sprawling, twisting oaks of California and the American South: beautiful to regard, but far too gnarled to be harvested for planks. Beyond the posture of the tree, porosity is another concern, as is the climate in which the oak is cultivated. Generally speaking, oak destined for wine barrels ought to be raised in a cool, dry area, ideally on poor soil, so that the tree will grow slowly. This results in more rings per inch and therefore a tighter grain to the stave.

Courtesy of the School of Natural Resources, University of Missouri

The most common contemporary sources for wine barrels are France, Hungary, and the eastern half of the United States, with Oregon as a minor player. Most of the oak forests of Europe feature a combination of Q. petraea (also known as French oak but occasionally referred to as sessile oak) and smaller amounts of Q. robur, a.k.a. English oak. These two species are very similar in appearance and are rarely differentiated by either loggers or coopers. In fact, it has been suggested that many of the perceived terroir differences between the various forests of France is attributable to their given ratios of petraea to robur. Hungarian oak is known as Q. frainetto, American as Q. alba, and Oregon as Q. gerryana.

Europe’s swaths of Q. petraea and Q. robur are vast, extending from the British Isles to the Black Sea, and from the Mediterranean up to the southern shores of Scandinavia. The prestigious heart of all this, however, is the Centre region of France. Now the most renowned source of oak in the world, these forests were demarcated, cultivated, and legally protected in the mid-1600s by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s Controller of Finances and Secretary of the Navy. His actions were a direct response to the overcutting of French forests during the 1500s, and a measure to preserve a continuous source of wood for future shipbuilding.

An interesting side note is that Hungarian and Baltic oak were historically regarded as being the highest in quality, especially by the Bordelais. When the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s interrupted trade with the north, Bordeaux was forced to turn to French oak. In a famous letter of 1811, the then-director of Château Latour complained that Baltic oak was increasingly difficult to acquire, bemoaning, “We shall soon have to…make do with what is here, even though the English don’t like it.” Once the wars ended, Bordeaux returned, at least in part, to the use of Baltic and Eastern European oak. It would take the advent of WWI to fully commit the Bordelais to relying on their own barrels.

In the US, white oak, or Q. alba, comes primarily from Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Kentucky and Missouri are the most widely planted, and oak from the Ozarks (the southwest section of Missouri) is usually considered superlative. The success of this area is based in large part on its particular growing conditions. Hank Stelzer, a professor at the University of Missouri with a Ph.D. in forestry, explains, “Western Missouri marks the transition point between the deciduous forests of the East Coast and the relatively barren Great Plains of the central United States. Here, the soil is extremely rocky and poor, with little in the way of moisture, so growth is extremely slow, the wood is dense, and the pores are small.”

Though similar in many ways, the different species of oak present unique structural and chemical profiles that influence how they are processed and for which wines they are most appropriate. American oak is more dense and less porous than European oak; it also contains a higher content of tylose lignin—effectively a clotting agent—which allows American oak to be sawn into staves without risk of leaking. French and Hungarian oak, by comparison, need to be split as if with an axe, so that the breaks in the wood follow their vertical sap channels. This is a far less efficient method of processing and results in a yield of only around 20% (compared to American oak’s 40%), which is a contributing factor to the low cost of American barrels. Oregon oak is the densest of them all, meaning it takes a very long time to dry; it is also low in tylose lignin so needs to be split rather than sawn.

From a chemical perspective, the oaks are even more distinct. The most significant compounds that combine to create the aromatic signature of a barrel are lactones (both cis and trans), vanillin, eugenol/isoeugenol, guaiacol/4-methylguaiacol, and furfural/5-methylfurfural. Cis-lactone is primarily responsible for the aroma of raw oak, while the trans isomer is associated with coconut (trans-lactone is sometimes referred to as the “whiskey lactone” due to its role in the characteristic flavor of bourbon). Seasoning has a dramatic effect on the ratio of these isomers, and toasting can help diminish their presence. Vanillin is responsible for vanilla aromas, which can either be suppressed or enhanced depending on the degree and manner of toasting. Barrel-fermentation is another way to reduce the level of apparent vanillin, as yeast will transform a portion of it into non-aromatic vanillyl alcohol. Eugenol and isoeugenol are responsible for scents of spice and clove, which increase with both seasoning and toasting. Guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol, produced during toasting, are responsible for smoky and smoky, spicy, or bacon aromas, respectively. Lastly, furfural and 5-methylfurfural are also produced during toasting and are specifically derived from the caramelization of the oak sugar cellulose. Unsurprisingly, their associated aromas are caramel, burnt sugar, butterscotch, and almond.

American is considered to be the more aromatically forward of the oaks. It is especially high in lactones, around two and a half times the levels found in French oak, and while the cis isomer (wood) remains relatively constant throughout the seasoning process, the level of trans-lactone (coconut) diminishes significantly with each year of air drying. I’ve been told repeatedly by winemakers, especially those leaning French, that American oak brings too much rough tannin to a wine, so I was surprised to discover that American oak contains significantly lower levels of ellagitannins (tannins from oak) than European oak. Perhaps the issue, then, is not the inherent quality of the tannins, but the treatment of wood by the coopers. During the seasoning process, several things happen to the staves: a selection of fungi and bacteria metabolize various components within the wood, rain and snow help leach out some tannin, and the pores of the wood slowly open, allowing some of the remaining tannins to oxidize. As a result, an American oak barrel that was only minimally seasoned might appear far more tannic than a properly air-dried French barrel. This is also the likely source of the dill aroma that continues to plague the reputation of American oak, as insufficiently aged or improperly toasted wood can often contribute green, herbal aromas in addition to harsh tannins.

At first glance, Oregon oak appears more similar to French than American, in that it is relatively low in lactones (coconut) and furfurals (caramel), but higher in tannin. That said, it still makes for an aromatically pungent barrel. Rick DeFerrari of Oregon Barrel Works (one of only two coopers in the state) says that most of his winery clients use Oregon oak as a component of a blend rather than the sole source of wood. Part of the reason for this is that most local vintners specialize in Pinot Noir, a delicate variety easily overwhelmed by Oregon oak’s assertive perfume. Though his operation is small (around 800 barrels a year), he claims to be unable to meet demand and states that interest is rising especially rapidly among the craft distillers of the Northwest.

All of this is to say that yes, there are profound physical and chemical differences between the oaks, but as coopers develop the tools to measure and understand how the various stages of barrel-making effect chemical and structural composition, not only is the quality of all barrels everywhere improving, but the organoleptic differences between American and European oak are becoming less distinct. Bruno Rémy agrees. “Before the priority used to be, will the barrel leak?” he recalls. “Now everything is much more sophisticated.”

Jason Stout has a lot to say on the vast changes the industry has experienced. “We now have better control over the organoleptic factors via the seasoning of the wood, the grain selection, etc. But one of the biggest advances that’s happened in wine barrel production all over the world, both American and French, is understanding the chemistry of toasting…. We have literally hundreds of different ways to control toasting now.”

In addition, the quality of American wood has arguably never been higher. According to Dr. Hank Stelzer, the great oak forests of the eastern United States were once under threat of extinction by what he calls “the Big Cut.” Starting in the 1880s, the forests were exploited for Midwestern cities and railroads heading west until, by the 1920s, they were devastated. In 1933, the government stepped in and began establishing national and state forests, such as the vast Mark Twain National Forest located in the Ozarks. But with the timber largely gone, many people began to leave the area, and the mass exodus of the 1940s and 50s gave the forests the breathing room they required to heal. This is significant as the ideal age for an oak to be harvested is around 80 to 100 years, meaning that many American oak stands are just entering their peak maturity. This may be why a handful of coopers are starting to specify the forest of origin on their barrels, whereas for the majority of American history, stave sources were either a blend of forests or anonymous.

American Oak in America

When André Tchelistcheff first came to California in 1938, he was greatly impressed with the quality of Beaulieu Vineyard’s 1936 Cabernet Sauvignon, still in barrel. When his new employer, visionary and entrepreneur M. de Latour, died shortly after his arrival, Tchelistcheff honored him by affixing that Cabernet with the label “Georges de Latour Private Reserve,” creating one of California’s most iconic wines. According to the recollection of Joel Aiken, who worked briefly with Tchelistcheff during his long tenure at BV, those initial barrels were French barriques that M. de Latour had acquired during a visit to Bordeaux.

Tchelistcheff continued to work with French oak until WWII made their acquisition impossible. Then, like the Bordelais of the early 1800s, he turned reluctantly to the local product. By the time the war ended, the distinct flavor of the American barrels had become a signature of the wine. This, coupled with his notoriously tiny budget, compelled Tchelistcheff to carry on using American oak. He left BV in 1974, but when Aiken joined the winemaking team in 1982, nothing had changed. “We had André’s winemaking notes and just did what he did,” Aiken explains. “Until the late 80s, all you could get for American oak were whiskey barrels. André asked them to skip the charring step for our purposes, but otherwise they were the same that a bourbon producer would use.” Because the insides of these barrels were untoasted, the oak was particularly green and harsh. “New barrels would come in and we would soak them in a hot soda ash solution followed by several rinses with citric acid to get the soda ash flavor out. Before they made it to the reserve program, we would use them for at least two years on one of our lesser wines.”

Around 1990, Tchelistcheff returned to BV as a consultant. Aiken remembers that, as they entered the cellar, Tchelistcheff looked around incredulously. “He asked me why we were still using American oak. I said, ‘Because that’s what you did!’ He turned to me and said, ‘That was 16 years ago! I’ve changed—why haven’t you?’” Aiken, who had repeatedly and unsuccessfully lobbied for the inclusion of French oak, was thrilled and immediately moved to transfer some of the 1989 vintage into French oak. “Of course, the irony of that is,” he laughs, “we were finally getting decent American barrels!”

For several years thereafter, the Georges de Latour Private Reserve was made with half French and half American oak. Ultimately, however, they transitioned entirely to French. “At some point we couldn’t justify selling a wine for $100 and be known for using American oak,” says Aiken.

Meanwhile, in 1969, a young Paul Draper had assumed control of winemaking at Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz mountains. Draper, a former philosophy student and a lover of history, had recently come across the records of a barrel study conducted by the University of Bordeaux between 1900 and 1910. Six different oaks were auditioned and tasted annually over the course of 10 years. The results? The top three positions were claimed by Baltic oak, with American oak in fourth place, followed by Bosnian, followed by French. Draper was elated; as a self-described “American chauvinist” who “resists the notion that imported is better,” he gladly committed himself, and Ridge, to the use of American oak.

Still an active member of the winemaking team, Draper has bottled more legendary wines than almost any other American winemaker. Though his approach in the cellar could be described as “natural,” it can also be described as rigorous. Over the years, he has worked closely with countless coopers and recalls, “I used to visit them regularly and was able to cherry-pick the staves. Sometimes I would come across staves that had been outside for three, five, even seven years! This was typically an accident of surplus, not really on purpose.” But Draper’s vigilance had led to opportunity, which he was wise enough to seize. He also often invited the coopers to visit and taste the results of their collaboration, saying, “It’s possible we had a hand in the evolution of American oak barrels.” A humble suggestion that many agree with.

For decades, the team at Ridge has conducted dozens of barrel and winemaking trials each year, always with an eye towards improvement. Though committed to American oak, they continue to keep tabs on French barrels. In fact, Monte Bello—Ridge’s most famous wine—typically includes three to five percent French oak in the final blend. “At some point in the 70s, we started to realize the French barrels were putting too much tannin in the wine,” Draper remembers. With one of the highest elevation vineyards in the state, Draper felt they had tannin enough already. Eric Baugher, head winemaker at the Monte Bello location, adds, “Our wine is naturally austere. American oak adds some sweetness in the mid-palate. Super-ripe areas like Napa have that naturally, but we don’t.”

In 1972, Justin Meyer and his financial partner Raymond Duncan established Silver Oak. Their founding business model was unique. In addition to focusing exclusively on Cabernet Sauvignon (at the time quite radical), they also committed themselves to American oak during an era in which Napa was moving in a decidedly French direction. Meyer’s decision to rely exclusively on American barrels was influenced in part by his great admiration for Tchelistcheff, and in part by his long experience as head winemaker for the Christian Brothers order. In fact, the barrels for their first vintage were purchased from BV. Initially, in an effort to tame the wild tannins of their Cabernet Sauvignon, Silver Oak initiated a program of extended bottle aging: two years in barrel, followed by one to two years in bottle.

David Duncan, son of Raymond, and current President and CEO of the winery explains, “We never wanted to emulate Bordeaux. From the very beginning, we were committed to making a true California wine.” Like Ridge, the team at Silver Oak has paid close attention to the manufacture of their barrels and even went so far as to partner with, and then purchase in 2000, their primary cooper, A&K Cooperage (now The Oak). In this way, they have been able to ensure that only the highest quality oak touches their wines. The resulting flavor is distinctive, and Duncan admits that American oak is now “an indelible part of the Silver Oak signature.” When asked if they ever receive criticism for their allegiance to American oak, Duncan shrugged. “Our consumers have the loudest voice, and they are very much in favor of the style of wine we make.”

Up in St. Helena, Turley Wine Cellars has constructed its portfolio around an ever-expanding range of Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs, for which they have always relied on American oak, at least in part. This practice predates the tenure of current winemaker Tegan Passalacqua, but he merrily carries the torch, confessing, “I’m a total fanboy for Ridge. I think Paul Draper and his team are the only ones in America to truly master American oak.”

For their core wines, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, Turley employs roughly 80% French oak and 20% American. “I do think there’s something philosophically right in using American oak on those grapes,” he mused, alluding to the fact that both varieties have a long history in the US (though neither are native). For their American oak, Turley works primarily with Canton, who has customized a barrel to Passalacqua’s specifications: medium toast, three-year air-dried staves that are bent into place with steam and capped off with untoasted heads. When used in combination with French oak, Tegan finds that they contribute both complexity and structure. That said, he readily admits that it’s easy for a winery to misuse American barrels, joking, “For some winemakers, I think American oak can be like a high-impact perfume—only the person wearing it thinks it’s great.”

Many other wineries over the course of California history have tried their hand with American oak only to walk away. Caymus got their start in the early 1970s by buying old barrels from Inglenook and BV. They loved the neutral wood but their attempt to purchase new American oak was less successful. “I went to Missouri three times in an attempt to get the same flame character I saw in France,” Chuck Wagner recalls. “It didn’t work too well. On my last attempt, the barrels caught on fire.” Joel Peterson of Ravenswood fame got his start at the Joseph Swan winery in Sonoma while Tchelistcheff was consulting. Based on his counsel, Swan bought several new American oak barrels to experiment with, which Peterson confesses were “basically just whiskey barrels” that gave the wines a “lactone sour dill banana chip character.” This experience scared Peterson away from American oak for good, even though he went on to found one of the most popular Zinfandel labels in national history.

Joel Peterson’s son, Morgan Twain-Peterson, has since established Bedrock Wine Company. Like his father before him, he has centered his attention on Zinfandel. Twain-Peterson, who actively promotes old vine vineyards and is well-versed in California history, recently restored some old redwood tanks to use for fermentations. His love for America’s historic wood, however, stops there. Though he claims to be “not philosophically opposed to American oak,” he has never been thrilled by any of his attempted trials. “We tend to pick earlier than most producers of Zinfandel or mixed blacks so we already have a good amount of structure,” he explains. “We found that American oak sat awkwardly on top of the existing tannin structure of our wine.”

Twain-Peterson, along with his business partner Chris Cottrell, belong to a new generation of California winemakers that are deliberately approaching their craft with an eye towards the past. For many, that backwards gaze manifests as an interest in old vine vineyards or historic varieties. Occasionally, as with Bedrock, it extends to include an interest in redwood. A small number of other young producers are opening their arms to American oak.

Rory Williams is the son of John Williams, who founded Frog’s Leap in the late 1980s. Rory grew up in Napa Valley and currently works alongside his father at Frog’s Leap. In 2009, he established his own brand, Calder Wine Company, which focuses on varieties of historic significance to the California wine industry, such as Riesling, Charbono, Petite Sirah, and Carignan. Rory had experience with American oak via the Frog’s Leap Zinfandels, which are a case study in elegance for the category. Though he typically relies on neutral barrels for all of his Calder wines, Rory felt his Carignan could use a little new oak to broaden its mid-palate. “I decided on new American oak for my Carignan because I believe it is varietally congruent,” Williams recounts. “I used Nadalié barrels made from staves that were air-dried for three years—very high quality. But still, American oak can have a super spicy, somewhat aggressive aroma. At only 10 to 15% of my wine, I find the actual oak part to be sub-threshold, but the spice and pepper notes nicely accentuate the natural expression of the Carignan.” I asked Williams, whose wines are very affordable, if barrel quality or price was the driving motivator in his selection. He answered, “I like the fact that the barrel is made locally… But yes, price is a big deal. My Carignan is $28. Am I really going to spend $1,000 on a barrel?”

John Lockwood of Enfield Wine is equally varietally specific in his approach to American oak. Though in the past he has tried it on a number of different creations, he currently employs it exclusively for his Tempranillo. “I only use 20% or less American oak, and prefer one- to two-year-old barrels,” Lockwood explains, “but even then, the effect on the wine is dramatic.” He specifically sought out American oak for its influence on a wine’s texture. “Tempranillo in general is a grape without a lot of mid-palate. I find that the American oak changes the overall frame of the wine in a profound way, making it broader, creamier, and spicier.”

American Oak Abroad

In polling various coopers, it became clear that American oak truly does have global reach, with a large quantity of new and used barrels making their way annually to Japan, Mexico, Chile, Taiwan, Scotland, and even Italy and France. But the biggest and most historically loyal foreign markets remain Spain and Australia, markets currently in flux, with generational changes and shifts in fashion altering how vintners make their barrel selections.

Though Spain’s history under vine is as long as nearly any country in Europe, their progress lagged behind the rest of the continent until the middle of the 19th century. In the 1850s and 1860s, the double assault of oidium and phylloxera wreaked havoc on the vineyards of France, which prompted French merchants and winemakers to investigate Spain as a potential source of wine. What resulted was a kind of intellectual exchange between Bordeaux and Rioja that slowly modernized the historically rustic Spanish winemaking culture.

One of the most important introductions the Bordelais made to Spain was the practice of cask-aging. Instead of using French or Eastern European oak, however, the Spanish took advantage of their well-established trade routes with the Americas and embraced Q. alba as their wood of choice. As Rioja is one of Spain’s most historic wine regions, it has the longest and most intimate association with American oak; in more recently established areas of production such as Ribero del Duero and Priorat, American oak is not as widely found.

Josh Raynolds, formerly of Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar and currently of Vinous, has been reviewing the wines of Spain and Australia for the past 12 years. “You see American oak mostly in Rioja, though also in Toro, Jumilla, and Yecla. Most often it is used to age Tempranillo.” Some of Spain’s most lauded brands utilize large quantities of American oak. López de Heredia has employed only American oak for nearly 140 years, with no plans to change; Vega Sicilia’s history with American barrels is nearly as long. Technical Director Gonzalo Iturriaga de Juan explains that they are currently using about 50% American oak—much less than they used 30 years ago.

Vega Sicilia isn’t the only winery dialing back the amount of American oak. Raynolds remarks, “While the more traditional houses are still aligned with American oak, starting around 10 years ago—especially among the young producers—there seemed to be a dramatic shift away from American and toward French oak.” Multiple coopers reported the same: while Spain is still a massive market for American oak, the numbers have been decreasing incrementally each year. This shift seems to be part of a larger, international movement to emphasize elegance, rather than power, in wine.

In Australia, that movement is even more palpable. Though for decades the pairing of American oak to Barossa Shiraz was viewed as the vinous equivalent of peanut butter and jelly, many young producers—and young drinkers—simply aren’t chasing those flavors any more.

According to Peter John, the Managing Director of A.P. John Coopers, the Australian relationship to American oak began in the late 19th century, when many of their fortified wines were aged in large American tanks. In the 1940s, when the Australian palate was just starting to prefer dry wine over sweet, European oak was embargoed on account of WWII. Thus, American oak barrels became first the default, then, gradually, the tradition. Certainly the success of Grange helped inspire countless vintners to look toward new American oak barrels for their wines (the lower cost of the barrels didn’t hurt either).

These days, a new generation of winemakers are coming into their own and seeking alternative sources of inspiration. “Right now, the Australian scene is super dynamic. It feels very French-minded. Australia is definitely at the anti-American swing of the pendulum,” Josh Raynolds posits. “This is because American oak is so emblematic of the old way, and the new guys are determined to emphasize elegance and transparency.” He goes on to predict, “I bet you that in five years, you will see some of the more ‘hipster’ producers going back to American oak, kind of like what’s going on in California [today].”

Michael Twelftree of Barossa Valley’s Two Hands Wines is a passionate and globally educated winemaker. As both a dedicated student of Burgundy and the Australian importer for Harlan, Twelftree deftly straddles the tectonic tension between the old and new worlds. “First of all,” he begins with great enthusiasm, practically shouting into the phone, “I want to make the point that oak is an oxidative tool, not a flavor enhancer. And yet, every time anyone talks about oak, they talk about its flavor. When I taste a wine and notice oak, I see that as a fault.”

Twelftree had recently returned from a visit to Napa Valley, where he hid among the tourists in the tasting rooms of some of Napa’s bigger wineries. He was not impressed. “I was completely horrified by what passes for a $100 wine. Mostly I found the wines tasted more of oak than of fruit!”

For his own wines, Twelftree prefers a light touch regarding oak, employing low toast Burgundy barrels that are one to three years in age. He also doesn’t let the wine rest for too long in barrel, lest it lose its freshness. “What I love about French oak is the refinement. It can really elevate the fruit profile.” And though he admires Grange and is grateful his country has produced such an important wine, he argues that American oak clashes with the Australian climate. “Our biggest problem here is over-ripeness, not under-ripeness. Australian wines tend to have a natural sweetness. If you then layer American oak onto that, it only increases that sweetness.”

Though he admits that the quality of American barrels seems to be much higher than in the past, he has no interest in working with them. Neither, in his experience, do a lot of his colleagues or his protégés. “The way I’d sum up American oak is this: if you want to know what it tastes like, go drink a glass of Maker’s Mark. That’s the taste of American oak, and it is not a taste I want near any of my beautiful fruit or wines.”

While some in the trade dismiss this recent push towards elegance as a fleeting fad, the coopers are taking it very seriously. One need only browse the catalogues of the bigger companies to see how their marketing dollars are being spent. Words like elegance, terroir, and understated crowd the pages of press releases and tech sheets. Under the Independent Stave umbrella are multiple smaller companies, each with a specialty focus. The tagline for one such company, TW Boswell, reads, “Barrels built on meticulous standards and full transparency.” Among TW Boswell’s French offerings is a Cool Climate Series that includes a Minerality Barrel, which promises to promote a wine’s “fruit and terroir” above all.

Jason Stout’s job is to keep his finger on the pulse of the wine world. “Big smoky barrels used to be the thing. But in general, people have backed off that in the barrel world, and now it’s about promoting the fruit and the natural expression of the wine.”

On the other side of the equation, coopers are noting an increased sensitivity of winemakers in how they use the barrels. Bruno Rémy states, “I’m seeing that winemakers at the good wineries are customizing their barrel plan to the vintage.” This is an approach that Michael Twelftree wholeheartedly agrees with, and it is especially important to the evolving reputation of American oak which, despite the recent dramatic improvements, can easily feel too present in a wine. “It disturbs me when someone tastes a wine they don’t like and they blame the oak,” bemoans Stout. “That’s not the oak’s fault. It’s all about the careful matching of the right wine to the right barrel.”

The Pepsi Challenge

Paul Draper led me down the rickety cellar stairs at Ridge’s Cupertino winery to a narrow counter where two glasses of dark purple wine were already poured. He rang his hands in excitement and confessed, “I don’t know which is which either.” Draper’s man at Monte Bello, Eric Baugher, had drawn barrel samples of the 2015 Monte Bello in advance of our descent—one from a new French barrel, and one from a new American barrel.

Like a pair of fraternal twins, they were as closely related as two different wines could be. The glass on my left had a fresh and bright nose—floral, but tinged with a spicy, confected note, like cinnamon mixed with sugar. On the palate it was elegant, dancing across the tongue until it ended in a fine dusting of lightly sweet tannins. The glass on the right was brooding and savory, with a black-fruited nose of plum skin, soy, and coffee. In the mouth it was far more coating and dense, with chewier tannins and an overall greater impact than the first wine.

I was honestly stumped. I had entered into this tasting with great confidence, assuming that the American barrel would be easily sussed out. And yet, no coconut or dill aromas were anywhere to be found. Though the nose of the second wine initially reminded me of a subdued version of a brawny Napa Cabernet, the texture threw me. As the tannins were far more clingy and overt, I decided that this must be from the American barrel. I was wrong.

Generously, Draper made a big show of giving my selection the weight of his consideration but ultimately pegged the more elegant wine as the American sample. He also reassured me that this was his favorite game to play with wine professionals, and in his experience, they were far more likely to guess wrong than right.

As this was such gentle company, the sting of my embarrassment quickly faded and the three of us spent the next several hours shimmying through narrow stacks of barrels and discussing all things oak. Then, as we were wrapping up the interview, the scheming winemakers led me into one final room, where another blind flight was waiting. My apprehension quickly turned to elation when it was revealed that each glass contained an experimental bottling of the 1991 Monte Bello—one that had been aged solely in French oak, and the other American.

The first glass was sweetly smoky with a heady nose of sandalwood and dried red cherries. In the mouth it was silky but bright, with fine, chalky tannins and a firm acidic core. The second glass was darker both in hue and mood, with an exotic nose of blackstrap molasses and tamarind. On the palate it was considerably more broad than the first, with ripe sweet tannins and a caramel tinge to the finish. Again, I was baffled. The first glass seemed to mirror the American sample from the original tasting, but the caramel tones of the second wine also spoke to domestic oak. Ultimately, I guessed correctly, that the second wine had seen the American oak, but it was truly just that—a guess.

While I suppose those tastings taught me a bit about the character and aging potential of wine kept in American oak, what it really brought to light was an awareness of my own preconceived notions. Though I work hard to keep my mind open, I can’t help but bump up against my prejudices from time to time. Certainly I am not alone in this, especially when it comes to American oak. But a preference for or against American oak is not nearly as important as taking the time to examine the issue. As Raynolds so eloquently put it, "The problem with American oak is that everyone's already made up their mind about it." Unchecked preconceptions and the blind following of trends are the enemies of education. Sadly, such things thrive the wine business, where objectivity is so easily smothered under the weight of fashion and dogma.

  • This is an exceptional article (just read it); you answered many of my internal questions. Thank you!

  • Great research. This might be my favorite article yet here at the guild. And thanks for the shout out to Inglenook. You are right, during the early years, and especially right after prohibition, John Daniel (Inglenook) exclusively used German oak: large vessel, 1000 gallon upright ovals!

  • Well done!  Big thanks and congratulations on your new role.

  • Hi Miquel. Thank you for the compliment! I have emailed Paul Draper to inquire about the toast levels but have yet to hear back. As soon as I know, I will post. But in general, yes -- as with wine, it seems, so with oak; the raw ingredients (grapes, trees) may have their own inherent qualities, but the techniques employed by the craftsman can often dominate, making hard to deduce the oak's origin. As far as your forestry comment, I was very specifically researching the history of the forests that feed the wine barrel industry, but yes I believe you are right. It seems that in Europe the various conquering/colonizing countries are all guilty of sacrificing their forests for their armadas, just like how in the US the forests were felled to fuel the mad rush west.