The first thing I noticed at Seguin-Moreau were the flames. Above the din that made conversation impossible inside the famed cooperage, rockets of orange flame leapt from the open-ended barrels under construction that foggy October day. To a cooper these flames mean toast, and they have everything to do with producing high-quality barrels, and absolutely nothing to do with breakfast.
Once the flames are extinguished with a quick burst of steam, coopers get to hammering, and within an hour a new barrel is finished. But according to Seguin-Moreau manager Chris Hansen, there’s more to barrel making than the flames and excitement that happen at the Napa cooperage on a daily basis for the past 100 years.
Like the century-old trees used in the production of their barrels, Seguin-Moreau Cooperage combines nearly 200 years of experience in the craft of barrel making, and their history ensures expertise in oak vessels from 225 to 500 liters. The cooperage is still tied to the family of the Remy-Martin empire, but both the Seguin and Moreau families began making barrels in the Cognac region of France in the late 1800s. Today, they’re well-known for the consistent quality of their barrels, which are still largely crafted by hand. And in the cooperage business, “by hand” means using simple, hand-wrought tools and a lot of sweat.
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Seguin-Moreau harvest their oak from forests across Eastern Europe, France, and Missouri, when the trees are between 100-200 years old and finally barrel-ready. From these massive forests, it takes another two years of seasoning for the staves to dry in sheds before heading to Napa to be made.
Then comes the real fun. As Hansen explains, coopers are like chefs, using their hands (and quite often their noses) to craft beautifully toasted, leak-free barrels. Initially, the staves are shaped and gently bent into the rounded form drinkers know and love by inserting them upright inside metal hoops. Slowly, the staves are pressed more and more tightly as the barrel takes shape.
The flames I encountered when entering the cooperage were in the midst of the toasting process, which is the most complex element of barrel making. As the staves are toasted, the color of the wood changes, releasing a variety of compounds deep inside the barrel staves, which will eventually translate to different compounds and flavors being transferred into wines or whiskeys.
“At Seguin-Moreau we are traditional,” notes Hansen, “And still use the cooper’s experience and skill rather than installing computer monitoring that some other cooperages may use. This relies on the cooper’s skill seeing the color of the toast, evenness, and aromas they smell from the barrel.”
From light to heavy (read: golden to black), toast levels vary depending on the style of wine being produced. In essence, bigger fires and heavier toast means bolder oak flavors such as vanilla, chocolate, mocha, and butterscotch will be infused into the wine as well as barrel-aged whiskeys like Bourbon.
“For wine production here in California, Medium + is the most popular toast,” say Hansen. “In France and other areas Medium toast is more popular.”
At Seguin-Moreau, only oak scraps left over from stave shaping are used in its toasting fires, preventing the chemical flavors that can be imparted by propane or other liquid fuels–like when that charcoal-loving friend uses way too much lighter fuel before grilling steaks.
After toasting, the barrels are tightened using metal hoops hand-hammered over the staves. Finally, the tops of the barrels–known as heads–are wedged into notches on each end of the barrel, a process that involves removing and replacing some of the hoops as the staves bend and flex into shape. Note: Coopers have drool-worthy biceps and shoulders.
Hansen notes, “I would hope that the entire process would never be mechanized. Using machines would be the same as going to a fine restaurant and having your meal made by machines not by trained chefs.”
Finally, the barrels are planed and sanded before going through a pressurized water test to ensure the seals are tight. The most important element of a good barrel, like much of the coopering process hasn’t changed in hundreds of years: “No leaks!” says Hansen.
After the water tests, the only thing these barrels are missing is wine.