Friday, March 28, 2008

The Art of Fire

“I tell my doctor, I only drink at work,” Chris Hansen jokes. We’re at the bar in Mustards Grill awaiting a table for lunch – the popular Napa Valley restaurant is, not surprisingly, jammed with people. In front of Chris are three open bottles of red wine, obviously attracting attention. Chris works for Nadalie Cooperage, and the three bottles are barrel samples of cabernet sauvignon brought along for tasting. Working over lunch is not unusual for Chris – and yes, I can hear scoffing, we are working. “My wife calls sometimes asking if I got to go to lunch today,” Chris says innocently, “and I say, ‘yeah, but we only had time for a quick bite – just an hour and a half at Bistro Don Giovanni’.”

I laugh along with Greg Lawson, a winemaker in the valley who’s with us at the bar. Chris grins, “My boss, who is something of a gourmet – we’ll go out to lunch, usually with a couple bottles of wine, when before you realize it,” he glances at his watch like his boss imitatively, “Could it be two-thirty already?”

Not only are we there to taste barrel samples, Greg’s brother Rob Lawson, a stellar winemaker of cult standing at the Napa Wine Company, has a pinot grigio on the menu being offered by the glass, so each of us start off with that. Try to remember we’re working. Greg tells us about it, “My brother made 6000 cases of this, just released it 3 weeks ago.” Chris and I nod, sticking our noses in our glasses. Greg then adds dramatically, “They’re already sold out.” Off our raised brows, he nods. So we taste, and it’s no wonder – the wine is delicious.

Greg has his own label “Valley Legend” a vineyard designated cabernet sauvignon that’s having its debut release in August. And like his brother Rob, Greg is meticulous about his winemaking – not only does he sort each cluster as it is brought in from the vineyard, but also each individual berry (meaning he’s removing individual berries that don’t make the grade) – yeah, fanatical. Greg says that he and his brother tasted through the wines before he came to Mustards and they were both very pleased. I can’t wait to try them myself.

The three Nadalie barrel samples Chris has with him are all of the same cuvee’ of cabernet sauvignon, the only difference being the barrel sources: the first being a barrel called Colbert, a blend of wood from different French oak forests chosen with one thing in common – extra tight grain. Chris explains that this mostly influences the wine’s body and mouth feel. The second sample comes from another French oak barrel called Troncais sourced from a single forest in the Troncais region – also tightly grained for slow extraction, giving the wine a light touch of oak, in a word finesse. The third barrel sample is of American oak, sourced from a forest in Missouri and of the three samples has the biggest, boldest flavors – very showy, but not so different than the French barrels. All three are unique, and each fantastic in its own right, but the exciting part is imagining how they could be used in unison to develop flavors. I’m impressed, like I was earlier in the week, when Chris gave me a tour of Nadalie’s barrel making facility.

The smell of sawdust was in the air. “Growing oak and making barrels is a lot like growing grapes and making wine,” Chris says, rubbing at the oak dust getting into his eyes. “There is a terroir for oak barrels, just like there is for wine.” I nod in agreement. Chris goes on, “Certain forests and certain types of trees, where they are harvested, which way the ground slopes, the elevation, the climate, and finally how the wood is seasoned and coopered, all influence the final quality. A lot of experience is necessary to build quality barrels.”

Located just north of Calistoga, next to Chateau Montelena, Nadalie Cooperage was the first cooperage to start building barrels in the Napa Valley, and is one of several branches of the family run business based in France, with another cooperage in Chile, and satellite offices in South America, Australia, Japan, and even China. The cooperage in Calistoga can build up to 80 barrels a day, which doesn’t sound like much, until you consider that each barrel is made almost entirely by hand. “What’s surprising,” Chris explains, “is that barrel making has remained basically the same for more than 2000 years with only minor changes. Barrels used to be made entirely with hand tools, but now, wood is often split with hydraulic power, and machines are used to plane and groove the pieces, yet the barrels are still fitted together by hand, and toasted and bent using fire.” Sounds positively primitive.

An oak barrel is basically made up of strips or planks of wood called staves – narrow at the ends (the chime) and fatter at the middle (the bilge), so that when bent and bound by hoops of steel, the barrel bulges in the middle in that familiar way. The staves get squeezed together by these hoops so tightly that they won’t leak. The ends of the barrel called heads are also made of staves, squeezed together though not initially bound by steel hoops, but instead held with headless nails called gudgeons. A number of gudgeons are placed between the staves, along with a strip of a grass-like reed, and then squeezed together to form a flat table-like plank. The gudgeons hold the staves tight, but the reeds keep the wine from leaking through staves. The heads are then cut into rounds and tapered at their edges before being set into grooves (called croze) cut into each end of the barrel. Then the hoops of steel are hammered down tightly, holding the heads firmly in place.

I came away from the tour amazed and impressed. Watching the toasting and bending of staves over open fire, the skill needed to feel the heat through the wood with bare hands and to know precisely how long the wood still needed to go. The brute strength needed to hammer down the hoops and muscle barrels to and fro. The hard won knowledge of proper technique. The marriage of innovation and tradition. Essentially, Nadalie builds barrels the same way barrel makers have been making them for thousands of years, but at the same time they are making them better for winemakers than ever before.

(When I told Chris I had forgotten to get a picture of him at the cooperage, he said to do like a friend of his once did, and use a picture of a dog. So, here’s my picture of Chris Hansen.)