Back in 1982, I visited Haut-Brion for the first time. In terms of important moments in my life, it was a biggie. I had a few real ah-ha moments there, one of which was about barrels. I had tasted most of the first growths, but to me Haut-Brion wines had the prettiest nose, consistently, in every vintage. Knowing how much of a wine’s aromatics comes from the oak, I realized that these guys were really on to something with their in-house cooperage.
Over the years I’ve talked with lots of coopers about developing our own Caldwell style with our barrel program. But when you’re working with commercial coopers, and five or six different vendors in any given vintage, it’s nearly impossible to get exactly what you want.
But then I met Ramiro Herrera, a Master Cooper with 20 years of experience in the business. I had him come in to help us with the barrel fermentations for the 2013 harvest. We got to talking and a year later, we decided to go for it. The Caldwell Cooperage. To get us started, Ramiro spent three weeks in Cognac hand-making 60 barrels for the 2014 vintage. The next year, we snuck into the French government’s top-secret oak auction and bought whole trees from the most sought-after forests in France. We aged half that Jupilles wood for two years, then Ramiro transformed it into barrels for our 2016 vintage. The other half aged another year before he worked his magic for the 2017 vintage. I can’t believe we’re actually at a point where we can make this happen. It’s like a dream come true.
I started making barrels almost 20 years ago with a big cooperage called Seguin Moreau. After three months they put me in charge of all barrel repairs, and within three years they offered to send me to France to start my Master Cooper training. I trained for four years with mentors in both France and Napa before receiving my degree. Now they tell me I’m the only Master Cooper with Mexican heritage. John thinks that’s pretty cool.
There’s some interesting stuff about this trade, like when you start out as an apprentice, you can’t use any machinery so everything you do, every barrel you build, is all by hand. You even have to make your own tools like the hand crozer, hand planer, head scraper, barrel shaver and hand stave joiner. We also make our own handles for our hammers, drivers and axes. They’re exactly like the ones that have been used for thousands of years.
Being in charge of production and inventory for a huge company taught me a lot over the years. One of my favorite parts has been learning about the oak from the various forests. The terroir of the forest really matters when it comes to the flavors. The Allier oak forests in France, for example, are the slowest growing in the world which means they have the tightest grains. Tight grains mean consistent flavors, fewer flaws and no leakage. That’s what we want. We can control every step of the process ─ hand-selecting the finest wood, shaping the staves, applying the hoops and toasting ─ which will make a big difference in the wine.
– Ramiro Herrera
OAK TO SMOKE
We sent Ramiro Herrera (our Master Cooper) to France to build our first 50 barrels in time for the 2014 harvest. We got to taste the results of that last month during our first-ever Caldwell Cooperage barrel tasting trial, where Marbue, Ramiro, our French coach Alban Petiteaux and I tasted through dozens of lots broken down by variety, clone, vineyard block and barrel treatment. The results were pretty mindblowing, and I feel like I can finally say we’re on to something pretty special here.
Before we could even start trying to find wood for our barrels the next year, we had to have a sense of what we were looking for in the way of flavor profiles. That meant tracking down oak from the right forest, with precisely the right curing time and toast. With demand for really good French oak as insane as it is, we realized we needed someone in the business that could help us find what we needed. Enter Alban Petiteaux, one of the most respected wood guys in the industry.
“After talking with Ramiro and John and Marbue, I knew we were going for something in the spirit of Haut-Brion – something that has rounded flavors of freshly baked brioche and soft clove spice. These are flavors you can only get from very special mature oak harvested from one of the very classic French state forests. We needed slow-growth Quercus petraea harvested at the perfect time, then milled to exact specifications and aged for a minimum of two years with waterings. Given the demand for oak of this quality, finding the right, highest quality oak was the first challenge. It takes 200 years to grow one of these trees, and the finest trees are often already spoken for and purchased at the state auctions by the large cooperages. Thankfully I was able to track down wood that I thought would work well. But that was only the first challenge.
Once I found the wood, we needed to make sure that Ramiro could build and toast the barrels very specifically. So we sent him to work with a friend of mine, a fellow Master Cooper who manages the toasting techniques at Haut-Brion. Like any art, there’s a real touch and nuance to doing it right. You’re working with low, slow burning fires and toasting the barrels for a long time to get that really deep toast quality. It’s a lot like cooking the perfect piece of meat. You don’t go by time, you go by nose and feel, so Ramiro’s palate has to be really finely attuned to the smoking... In the next four or five years, it will be about solidifying our wood sources and fine-tuning things through trial and error over the next five or more years, and then to make it so we can replicate it perfectly going forward.”
– Alban Petiteaux
Who Is Alban Petiteaux?
Founder, Oenowood International
“Funny enough my last name in French means small waters and in Russian it translates to vodka. Then there’s my mother’s maiden name, Malvin, which translates to bad wine, which is really fun given my career. I’ve been in wine all my life. My mom was the Deputy Director of the Beaune School of Viticulture. Now I live in Cognac, the heart of the French oak world, with my wife and two beautiful kids. I’ve worked with some of the largest and greatest cooperages in the world. As a consultant I feel pretty lucky to work directly with wineries like Caldwell to help them source the finest wood and uncover beauty in their wines.”