No fingernail polish in sight
Tailors cutting timber to fit
80% of Australia's barrels
by PHILIP WHITE
“Not many of these blokes will be doing fingernail polish advertisements,” I thoughtfully advised myself.
I couldn't help noticing the lack of representatives of the Women In Wine movement at the table, but that's another issue.
The snappy James Lindner, of Langmeil Wines at Tanunda, was giving another of his remarkable lunches. A notable precursor was the amazing day when the 94 year old Dr Ray Beckwith stood up and for the first time in his life told the story of his discovery of the importance of pH in winemaking in the ’thirties. No-one who attended will ever forget that.
Attendees probably won’t forget this one, either. It was in honour of the coopers of the Barossa: 24 men from seven barrel factories. We worked out that between them, this long table of blokes makes about eighty per cent of the wine barrels used in Australia.
“If we’d had this lunch twenty years back,” one sage remarked, “with the old blokes, there’d be more fingers missing. Occupational health and safety, eh?”
There’s been a great deal of bullshit spoken about oak. Most wines that boast of having oak have never seen a new barrel. At the extreme, usually illegal end, charlatans may resort to essence of oak chips, like the shipment I innocently signed for upon its arrival at Rothbury wines thirty years ago. While I suggested there was sufficient there to turn Sydney Harbor into Chardonnay, Len Evans’ shotgun rider insisted the turps was for laboratory use only.
Within the law, sawdust, shavings, chips, planks and innerstaves make up most of the oak which is not your actual barrel. A bag of shavings, for example, is called a “tea bag”. In the business, we jokingly call this “small oak”. The back labels might claim “small oak” occasionally, but these days you’re more likely to spot the word “subtle”.
“Oak alternatives, we call that,” explained Master Cooper Peter John, who runs Australia’s biggest cooperage, A. P. John, in Tanunda. “That’s the stuff that goes into the wine, rather than stuff the wine goes into. Between fifteen and twenty per cent of our sales revenue comes from oak alternatives.”
But while the men around that table are very happy to make a buck selling their offcuts to winemakers who won't pay for real barrels, their pride is in their barrel craft, and brazen barrel-chested pride it is. Barrels do healing things to wine that no shovel of sawdust or onion bag of shavings can ever do to a big steel tankful of over-irrigated petrochem mentality Ozplonk.
Yeast, for example, is a single-celled fungi which falls to the bottom of a barrel after fermentation, during which it has turned sugar to ethanol. As it dies and rots, its remnants release mannoproteins and polysaccharides which soften tannins and acids. Through a mysterious electrostatic process, these tiny dead bodies will gradually line the entire inside surface of a barrel, so if the wine goes into the wood it passes through a layer of these compounds, and when it comes back out of those millimeters of oak cells it passes through those dead yeasts again, as if they were a flavoured strainer. This electrostatic exchange does not happen to sawdust in a bloody huge steel tank.
Peter’s a fourth-generation cooper. His mighty dad, Master Cooper and fellow Baron of the Barossa, Warren John, died recently, triggering the idea of this lunch; Peter’s son Alex is being groomed to take over in due course.
Coopers are deemed worthy of great respect in the Barossa. Richard Lindner, James’s dad, said he thought he’d get along to Warren’s funeral early. “You know Whitey, get to the service twenty minutes before it started, find a quiet seat and remember Warren. Not a chance. The crowd was that big you couldn’t get near the church.”
“When I started in 1976 we were an artisan cooperage making a hundred barrels a year for Grange,” Peter said. “The breach Alex is preparing to step into is gonna be a helluva lot different to the one I walked into. We make 30,000 barrels a year now. We generally have around thirty employees. It’s a different world. I was very lucky. I learnt on the go. Alex has been through every analytical wine course we can find. He’s studied the science and chemistry of wood, of polyphenols, the chemistry and physics of grain spacing, cool climate oak versus warmer, the whole deal. Everything we can learn from the cooperages of the USA and France.”
Apart from that book learning, coopering is tough physical work. Barrels are heavy. Oak has splinters. When you toast barrels, to release the wood’s natural vinillins and caramels, you use fire. Fire burns. Shaving machines and electric planers, hammers and hoop drivers are hard violent things. It takes years and fingers to learn to wrangle barrels quickly and efficiently.
“Say when one of these young blokes start, when they grab a barrel, they’re slow,” said Anthony Werner of Cooperages 1912, just up the road from A. P. John’s. “You gotta learn to be careful. It’s dangerous. Takes a long time to learn. Lots can go wrong. So like a young feller might take four or five hours to work through thirty barrels. I can shave thirty barrels in about an hour forty-five, but I’ve been doing it for seventeen years.”
Shaving a barrel is not building a new one from scratch, but removing the the head from an old one and shaving its interior to release a fresh oak surface to the next wine.
He’s talking about puncheons, barriques, hogsheads and the like. Wood you can roll and stack. Some jobs are a lot bigger. Out of his fifty years of coopering, Glen Shulz says the biggest, trickiest job was one he and Peter John worked on at the Riverland Fruit Cannery. To break citrus peel down for jam manufacture, the factory used a powerful acid brine solution that would eat concrete and stainless steel. So the lads took their timber and tools up the river and built the biggest set of wooden vats Australia is likely to see.
“They were 100,000 litres each,” Peter recalls, a little ruefully. “We built nine of ’em.” That's him in the Peter Frampton haircut below.
“It was bloody dangerous,” Glen said. “We’d have half the staves in place on the base, just standing there, and if you got a gust of wind the whole lot of ’em would fall on you. But we got it done. It was a challenge. But you know, we were young ’uns. We enjoyed it. We were proud of what we did. And then the ownership of the jam factory changed or there was a takeover or something and the whole joint shut down.”
Coopering has bizarre timeframes. It commonly takes about 120 years for a French oak to grow big enough to supply enough suitable wood to make a couple of good barrels. People wince at the notion of beautiful trees being cut, but the consolation is the simple fact that the French are great foresters, an activity they delightfully call sylviculture. Forest land is farmed for a profit, just like any other farmland. Professional sylviculturers select the blend of trees required to keep a balanced, multicultural forest with straight marketable trunks. One quarter of France is under forest, and a third of that is oak. The French have reforested two million hectares of land since the destruction of World War II.
The French sell trees by auction. A tranche of forest is mapped and delineated, and the composition of its timber recorded. Potential buyers inspect the trees, and are permitted to take cores from their trunks to check the suitability of their grain. Only a certain percentage of the trees in any tranche are marked for removal, and these can be of various species. The buyer is obliged to remove all the trees marked for harvest, whether he wants only the best oak or not: buyers must have contacts in many industries requiring timber in order to sell all the wood they are obliged to harvest but do not need. The auction is Dutch: the auctioneer starts at a high price and comes down. First buyer to break ranks and poke a finger up gets the timber. The auctions are very tense; much Gauloise smoke fills the air. The buyer is then obliged to remove the designated trees within a certain period of time and make the forest clean for the replanters. And so the cycle repeats.
So a cooper like Peter buys oak from the forests he prefers through a French agent, and the wood is shipped to the Barossa, cut, or split, and stacked outside for 35 months seasoning before a barrel can be made. While A. P. John is now backed by a French cooper, they also sell American oak products. Conversely, Cooperages 1912 has an American backer, but also sells French oak.
These are coopers of formidable reputation: A. P. John exports around 3000 barrels per annum, to the USA and Europe; barrels made from oak grown in the USA and Europe. But that wood is seasoned in Australia's clean air, which makes a difference to the most sensitive and sensible winemakers.
So what happens, with such extreme timeframes, when the wine business takes a downturn, or the fashion for overtly sappy new oak wanes as it is now mercifully doing?
“All coopers are having a tough time in terms of profitability,” Peter says. “The sheer scale of our inventory, the exchange rate … things work against you. This is our leanest year in ten. Australia has some of the most respected coopers on Earth, but we’re also amongst the most expensive. But, you know, we’ve had 25 exceptional years, and we can tolerate a cycle like this. We adapt. Like with this trend to more subtle oak in the premium wines, and the demand for older used barrels increasing, we now trade heavily in used barrels. We buy more than any other cooper.
“Then, on the other hand, we must innovate. Like we’re keeping a very close eye, through our French connection, on this new demand for egg-shaped or amphorae-shaped oaks.”
And the current fad amongst bearded naturists who insist ceramic amphorae are the go? Is Peter John looking for a claypit?
Back row, left to right: Graham Heinrich, 34 years coopering at Heinrich's and Yalumba; Richard Lindner, proprietor of Langmeil Wines, our host; Dylan Pratt, one year at Heinrich; Jeremy Miles, twelve years at Heinrich; Glen Schulz, Schulz Barrel Co. fifty years coopering; Kent Norris, YN Oak; Andrew Young, YN Oak, 35 years coopering; Malcolm Heupeuff, YN Oak, 47 years coopering; Nick Bishop, YN Oak, sixteen years coopering; Warren Schutz, A. P. John, 29 years coopering; Peter John, 37 years coopering at A.P. John; Ashley Redden, A. P. John, 37 years coopering; middle row, l-r: Alex Thompson, fifty years coopering; Jacob Pitt, three months coopering at Stillers; Matt Prior, Keg Factory, seven years coopering; Robert Westover, Keg Factory, five years coopering; Andrew Stiller, eighteen years coopering at Stillers; Daniel Wall, Stillers, thirteen years coopering; Alex John, seven years training at A. P. John; front row, l-r: Neil Heinrich, twenty years coopering at Yalumba and Heinrich's; Andrew Broad, Yalumba; Shaun Gibson, fourteen years coopering at Yalumba; Corey Reuhr, fifteen years coopering at Yalumba; and Anthony Werner, seventeen years coopering at Heinrich, which is now called Cooperages 1912. All the luncheon photographs are by Dragan Radocaj.