Only 3% of wine produced worldwide is aged in oak barrels and only 1% is aged in new French oak. So what we’re doing with new French oak from these Haute Futaie trees is really the lunatic fringe of winemaking… the take-no-prisoners best of the best, two hundred years in the making.

The Caldwell Cooperage

How we became the first winery in the United States to develop our own barrel cooperage.

“The French word used to describe a wine’s time in barrel is élevage. It’s pretty telling when you consider that they use the same word to describe raising a child. A barrel shapes a wine’s character the same way that a parent shapes a child’s personality – for better or worse. Barrels, and everything that goes into them — the forest, the circumstances of 200 years of time to grow a mature oak tree, the tightness of the grain once it’s been chopped down, cut into boards and air cured over multiple seasons and, especially, the craftmanship and toasting of the final product — are truly what differentiates a good wine from a great one.”

Back in 1982 John visited Haut Brion for the first time. In terms of important moments in his life, it was a biggie. He had a few real ah-ha moments there, one of which was about barrels. He had tasted most of the first growths, but he always believed Haut Brion wines had the prettiest nose, consistently, in every vintage. Knowing how much of a wine’s aromatics comes from the oak, he realized that these guys were really on to something with their in-house cooperage.

Over the years he’d talked with lots of existing coopers, based both in the United States and in Europe, about developing our own Caldwell style through our own custom 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.


Then, in 2013 by a stroke of pure Caldwell luck, John met Ramiro Herrera, a Master Cooper with 20 years of experience in the business and asked him on the spot if he’d be open to helping us with the barrel fermentations for the 2013 harvest.

During that short time together, John and Ramiro got to talking and a year later, they decided they’d go for it. The Caldwell Cooperage was born. To get things started, Ramiro spent three weeks in Cognac hand-making 60 barrels for the 2014 vintage. 

The following years were all about developing our own style and figuring out what combinations would bring out the highest and most delicious expression of our wines. It was a ton of work and a lot of trial and error. For every variety, clone and block, we used one Caldwell barrel and one other barrel from one of our regular commercial cooper. For that next vintage, we barrel fermented all the wines, pulled the grapes out, pressed off the juice, then put it back into the exact same barrel. It was ridiculously labor intensive and seriously OCD, geeked-out shit, but we had to make it an exact science in order to really understand it all.

A whopping fifty to ninety percent of the flavor of a wine comes from the barrel. So what you do with this piece of the winemaking process defines the finished product and separates the good from the great wines in the world.

Master Cooper

Ramiro Herrera

Caldwell Vineyard is the first U.S. winery to employ a full time Master Cooper for our own in-house French oak barrel program.

Our Master Cooper, Ramiro Hererra, is one of less than three dozen people in the world who have earned that title, the only one from Mexico, and the only one who resides in the United States.

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. 

Becoming a master cooper is an interesting process. You have to start as an apprentice, during which time you’re not allowed to 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.

After I received my training I went back to work for Seguin Moreau. They gave me such a great opportunity to advance my career and I’ll always be grateful for that. 

Now, instead of working in a mass production facility making thirty thousand barrels a year, I only need to focus on three hundred perfect barrels for Caldwell. I think there are only 10 wineries in the world with their own in-house cooperage. It’s really a dream come true. 

I can control every step of the process, starting with literally hand-selecting and buying the finest wood from France, to shaping the staves exactly how we want them, and — possibly the most important part — to micro-manage the entire process of toasting each unique barrel with a specific varietal and wine in mind. Toasting is a really big part of creating the Caldwell signature flavors – it’s an art in and of itself.

The Art of Toast

The small scale of our cooperage allows Ramiro to devote lots of time to the art of toasting in order to develop incredible flavor and consistency. It takes focused time and attention to toast a barrel to perfection. 

For the first 30-minutes of toasting, every barrel’s aroma is the same. Every seven minutes after the toasting begins, a whole bunch of different aromatics begin to develop. Vanilla, mocha, coconut, spice, chocolate and coffee are the primary components in the oak, and when they develop in the process depends on the tree that the staves were made from. 

You need to be right there, with the barrel every minute, so you can stop the toasting process as soon as you sense the exact aromas your winemaker wants. And when you’re making as many wines as we do at Caldwell, there’s dozens of clones and varieties, and different areas in the vineyard, each of which get different barrels, which gives us lots and lots to think about and play with.

Barrel making is an art, and toasting is a craft all its own. As a Master Cooper, Ramiro has a keen sense for building a fire that will burn slow, low and even. During the toasting process, he continuously turns the barrel throughout the time they’re in contact with the fire, slowly and methodically. The goal is to get the heat to penetrate evenly, about a quarter-inch into each barrel stave. A perfectly even toast on the inside of the oak barrel imparts softer, more integrated flavors – which is always the goal. 

Matching the toast to the wine is a collaboration between cooper and winemaker, and depends on many factors. A wine with big tannins, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Petit Verdot, benefits greatly from a well toasted barrel, as the barrel flavors and tannins are imparted into the wine and, if done just right, will greatly soften the texture and overall integration in the structural components of the wine. 

Ramiro is an important part of what makes Caldwell wine because nearly every single estate wine we make sees time in oak including our Sauvignon Blanc and Rosé. Our reds are fermented and aged in barrel. 


Oak Barrel Flavors

Oak has a series of complex compounds which contribute flavor, aromatics and texture to a wine. The sweet, toasty, vanilla notes are the most typical and the easiest to pick out, but there are technically five main aromatic notes that you can capture from the oak, including coconut (lactones), vanilla (vanillin), clove or spice (eugenol), roasted, smoke or char (guaiacol) and mocha, espresso or coffee (furfural and methylfurfural).

As contrary as it sounds, we actually don’t want our wines to taste like oak so getting the oak profile exactly right, so it integrates with the fruit and structure of the wine, is the most critical component.

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 the cooper’s senses and palate need to be as finely tuned as his other tools.

For those of you with a penchant for going deep in the art of winemaking can request a visit with Ramiro when you come visit.  

Buying Haute Futaie Oak

The greatest oak in the world comes from the Haute Futaie forests in the heart of France. These ancient forests are owned and managed by the French government for the sole purpose of producing the strongest, straightest and most sought-after wood in the world. It takes 200 years (eight human generations) for these trees to reach full maturity.

Haute Futaie forests make up about 8% of the state-owned woodlands, and less than 1% of the country’s total forested area. You have to be a licensed forester from France to get your hands on these trees, which are cut and sold once per year at a private silent auction. That’s where our French wood consultant Alban Petiteaux comes in. His experience and connections in the business got us into the auction to purchase our own trees for the first time in 2015. 

We were the only Americans there. We felt like strangers in a strange land, in this closed-door silent auction of the world’s most valuable trees….

Since each tree costs $1000–$1500 Euros and will only make two and a half to three barrels, it’s a game that only the big boys with deep pockets normally get to play. The auctions are equal parts gentlemanly musings and cutthroat business deals, and we’re fortunate enough to have gotten access.

The wood from these trees is special because of the flavors and textures that this slow-growth, tight grained species (Quercus sessiliflora) imparts. 

Each tree has its own balance of compounds and its own distinct character, which can be further developed by careful curing and toasting. All this should give you a sense of why oak is so damn important to the process, and why having our own cooperage – where we get to control every aspect from tree to finished barrel – is so damn cool.


In 2014, we sent Ramiro 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 (our winemaker at the time), Ramiro, our French coach Alban Petiteaux and John tasted through dozens of lots broken down by variety, clone, vineyard block and barrel treatment. The results were pretty mind-blowing.

Before we could even start trying to find wood for our barrels last 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, 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 Quercas Petrea 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. Over the next five years, my job was to solidify our wood sources and fine-tuning things through trial and error with the winemaking team. And I feel like we absolutely nailed it.”

Who Is Alban Petiteaux?
Founder, Oenowood International and our French Oak Consultant

“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.”

Caldwell Cooperage Barrels Are Making Spirits Too

Turns out, just like wine and whiskey, tequilas get about 75% of their flavor from the barrel. The oak softens the mouthfeel and adds complexity to what otherwise tastes like any other pure spirit. Aging brings out even more of the flavors. So being a barrel guy, with our own Master Cooper on staff (Ramiro is the man), we didn’t just want to taste other people’s tequila, we wanted to make our own.

Our Master Cooper, Ramiro (who is Mexican himself), happened to know the owner of a tequila distillery in Amatitán, Mexico. So he invited the guys up to Napa to have a proper tasting at the winery. They brought their best stuff. It seems we were duly impressed because the tasting lasted ‘til 2am. I made it to bed that night, but don’t remember getting’ there. That night a partnership was born and JFC Tequila came to life. 

“Why not make it ourselves?”, you ask. Well, you can’t call just any old blue agave liquor “tequila” unless its made in the right part of Mexico. Its just like sparkling wine can’t be called Champagne unless its made in Champagne, France. 


After the tasting, Ramiro set to work hand-crafting barrels that would offer the absolute perfect flavor profile and then shipped the Caldwell Cooperage barrels down to our friend’s production facility in Tequila. Our winemaker, Marc Gagnon, went in person to make sure the right tequila got put in the right barrels so we’d have plenty of options for blending the final batch. 

A couple of years ago, Ramiro got an email from a French girl he used to work with at a cooperage in Chile. Some of her Mexican friends were coming to Napa and wanted to meet him, so he invited them out for a tasting at the cave. Turns out one of these friends, Mauricio, just happened to own a tequila company in Jalisco. When they got home, Mauricio sent a thank you note, a few bottles, and an invitation to come visit anytime. 

Two years later, I was itching to go to Mexico and asked Ramiro if he knew anybody down there. By a dumb stroke of the now famous Caldwell luck, our friend Mauricio just happened to be coming to Napa for another Caldwell tasting. He brought a little more tequila with him which we sat down and tasted with Ramiro, and our vineyard manager. When I tasted this stuff, I decided on the spot that I needed to head down and get a proper indoctrination into the world of Tequila. I booked and ticket for the following week. 

Mauricio hooked us up and we tasted at a bunch of different places but, everywhere we went, there was nothing but old barrels. 

Now, you need to understand, liquor gets 95% of its flavor from the barrel, and barrels only have about five, maybe six years where they’re giving their best aromas. When we asked why they were using these old-ass barrels, the answer was always that the new ones were too expensive ($40 vs $1000). So of course, we had to see what we could do if we aged this stuff in a proper Caldwell Cooperage new French oak barrel. 

Ramiro got home and built a brand new 40-liter barrel from our stash of French oak, and poured 40 liters of Mauricio’s one-year-old tequila in there. Three weeks later, we did a blind tasting alongside Mauricio’s 12-year-old bottling. The baby tequila with three weeks in real oak won by a landslide – hands down. Are you fucking kidding me? We actually did another blind tasting beside a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle whiskey, and damned if the oak-finished baby tequila won again.

Since you can’t call your agave liquor “tequila” unless it was made in Tequila, Mexico (just like Champagne), we’ve now got about 10 barrels full of tequila down in Mauricio’s facility waiting to be bottled. Of course, the only name for the stuff is Pinche Caldwell (look it up).

Nulla quis lorem ut libero malesuada feugiat. Vestibulum ac diam sit amet quam vehicula elementum sed sit amet dui. Vivamus suscipit tortor eget felis porttitor volutpat.

Multimedia collage