April 2015 Issue of Wines & Vines


Using oak barrel alternatives to save money and add value

by Laurie Daniels
Chad Joseph
Chad Joseph counts Zinfandel among the varieties that do especially well with oak barrel alternatives.

Winemaker Chad Joseph grew up in the Central Valley town of Visalia, Calif., where he worked agricultural jobs from an early age. He first spent time around grapes during high school, when he would help his grandfather tend his vineyard of Thompson seedless table grapes.

But when Joseph went off to Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., to study botany and chemistry, he planned to be a teacher. As often happens in California, he got interested in wine and, when he graduated in 1996, he decided to apply his skills to winemaking. “Winemaking was a total fit,” he said.

He went to work at E. & J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, Calif., starting as a lab technician. About three years later he had been named one of the winemakers, overseeing wines for brands such as Turning Leaf, Redwood Creek and Gallo Sonoma. Gallo was a university of its own, as Joseph was exposed to and participated in the company’s constant experimentation. “The learning curve is just outstanding,” he told Wines & Vines.

While Joseph was managing more than 1 million gallons of wine, he wanted to work in a smaller, more boutique operation. So he founded his own brand, Joseph Narcizo Wines, named for his partner’s grandfather, and became a consulting winemaker for several small wineries in the Lodi and Clarksburg AVAs.

His consulting business thrived, so Joseph closed his brand after a few years. He now spends his time consulting for small wineries such as Harney Lane Vineyards, Maley Brothers, Dancing Coyote Wines and Oak Farm Vineyards, as well as working with growers who want to produce bulk wine.

Wines & Vines: Please give us a general idea of which oak products you work with. You prefer the term oak adjuncts.

Chad Joseph: I don’t use oak adjuncts on all my wines, but I would lump the ones that I do use into two categories: oak added during fermentation and oak added as an aging/finishing tool. Most of the oak adjuncts I add during fermentation are added to red grape varieties, and I primarily use oak that can go through my pumps.

With fermentation oak, I typically use it mostly in the form of granular/dust (StaVin, Oak-Mor and evOAK), or occasionally oak chips (StaVin, evOAK and Nadalié). Recently, I have had some really good success with a grade of oak from Moxon called tobacco, which I would say is somewhere between granular and chip. Typically, I use this fermentation oak in order to get better color stabilization, rounder mouthfeel and improved structure. Most of the dust comes house-toasted, and I typically add it at the sump pump, dosing it into the must, post-destemmer. The rate of addition for most dust or granular doesn’t exceed 1 pound of oak per ton of grapes, when grapes are healthy. In years of mold, rot or excessively herbaceous flavors, you can add up to 2 pounds to remedy these problems.

Chips during fermentation can be added at a higher rate. In general, the larger the oak particle size, the larger the dose that’s added. You can over-add dust and/or chips, so be very careful to do trials first and work with your supplier on recommended dosage rates. Chips typically can be added up to 10 pounds of oak per ton, but normal addition rates for me fall in the 4- to 6-pound range. In most cases, I am using the chips for color stabilization and structure, not to impart flavor. One trick I have learned is using at least 1 pound of untoasted chips in my “blend” of chips I add to a fermentation tank. I typically use French oak since I like the structural component it tends to add, but if cost is a consideration, I see no problem with using American oak. As far as toast goes, I typically go for the medium to medium-plus chip. I had problems early on with heavily toasted chips and the lingering smoke and burnt rubber flavors we got out. But that was almost 15 years ago, and I think chip selection and toasting methods have drastically improved since then. I rely heavily on talking with the supplier and have had good luck with finding a product that fits my needs through open dialogue and trial.

As far as white wine goes, I do not like to use oak dust or chips for fermentation. I have had good success in using long staves that we set up in tanks for fermentation, then aging the wine on these staves. But in general, most whites I do are true stainless steel, or they go to barrel for barrel fermentation and aging. All of the oaked whites I produce go for over $20 a bottle, and I am really happy with my barrel program for these wines.

The second type of oak adjunct I employ is for finishing the wine and is used to add flavor and texture. In general, I find that I really like using beans, segments or domino-size oak that is secured in nylon bags. These can be bagged up and then attached to a stainless steel ring, chain or wire that runs the inner circumference of the tank, near the bottom. That way, the bags can lay on the sides of the tank—they do not float around—and are easy for workers to install and remove. I like this size of oak because it has the fastest extraction time and still gives a very high quality impact.

I think longer staves can give you better results if you are looking for barrel-like quality, but I am not a fan of the process of installing the larger staves in the tanks. In my experience, the bagged oak is easier to install, take out and clean (if need be), and easier to handle and store. I’ve also found that I like the shorter extraction time needed for the smaller-sized oak alternatives that you can bag. I have moved away from solely using chips, because chips seem to leave a slightly more resinous, pencil quality that dominates. But both long staves and chips work really well, and I know people who enjoy good success with them, especially as blenders.

W&V: How does the cost of oak alternatives compare with the price of barrels?

Joseph: Let’s say we are going to do a program that you want to have 25% new oak. Let’s assume you want this program to be French oak. My cheaper French oak barrel goes for around $800 a barrel. If I age 59 gallons in that barrel, the wine will have an additional cost of $13.55 per gallon due to that barrel. If that wine makes up 25% of my blend, then I am looking at a cost of $3.39 per gallon (67 cents per bottle) for the cost of using 25% new French oak barrels in my blend.

Now, let’s look at buying French oak beans from StaVin ($370 per 20-pound bag), for example. That 20-pound bag of oak beans can add 100% new oak level on 800 gallons of wine (StaVin recommends using 1.5 pounds of oak beans per 60 gallons wine for 100% new oak impact). So, that’s a cost of 46 cents per gallon (compare that to the $13.55 for a new French oak barrel) for 100% oak rate. So, if I use this wine for the same 25% of my blend, the actual cost would be 12 cents per gallon (less than 3 cents per bottle).

And that’s just looking at the cost of the product, not the labor and warehouse costs associated with managing barrels. It also doesn’t put a value on the quality of the product being produced. But the cost difference is significant between the two different materials.

Lodi Native Wines

W&V: Beyond cost, what other considerations would lead you to use oak barrel alternatives in particular wines?

Joseph: There are a number of benefits I see for using oak adjuncts with certain wines. First off, it is easier to manage one tank of 60,000 gallons when considering temperature, microbe monitoring, SO2 management, making cellar adjustments and overall sanitation, when compared to managing 1,000 barrels for the same lot. Second, tanks tend be underutilized after harvest, and I find a lot of winemakers scrambling to find additional barrels for wine they didn’t have room for or anticipate before harvest. Using just a small percentage of oak adjuncts in these underutilized tanks can help alleviate the pressure of getting everything into barrel right after harvest.

One of the biggest advantages I see of using oak adjuncts is that you will have better control over winery sanitation. Cleaning and managing barrels takes resources, specialized facilities and time. I too often see wineries over-commit to their barrel program and develop spoilage problems because they could not manage their barrel inventory as they began to grow.

Obviously, you have to consider your price point and overall marketing strategy. You have to decide if the wine profile you are trying to achieve could benefit from the use of oak adjuncts. Typically, these are mid-priced wines that are positioned for good future growth. The short extraction times and the ability to age large volumes in one tank make oak adjuncts very attractive for this style of winemaking.

W&V: Are there grape varieties that react particularly well with adjuncts? Are there varieties for which you wouldn’t use or would rarely use adjuncts?

Joseph: I think that there are certain varieties that are perfectly suited for oak adjuncts. For example, the fruitier wines like Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Sirah do very well with oak adjuncts. When we get those varieties riper, they tend be rich and lush, right out of the fermentation tank. So, adding a little vanilla, spice and chocolate just fills them out, and you can have a very consumer-friendly wine within a relatively short period of time.

One wine that I thought wouldn’t be well suited for oak adjuncts was Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir can be very fragile, and sometimes the oak adjuncts become too prominent and overbearing. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with some new toasting levels that produce more of an enhanced mouthfeel and respect the fruit. It’s really helped me bring out the fullness and depth of the wine without creating confectionary flavors. This is something I developed for a client that is a signature of their blend and brand, so I do not want to give away too many details.

I’ve had mixed results with the Bordeaux varietals grown here in the northern interior. Whenever the wine has a perceived green, herbaceous flavor that we didn’t remedy through oak adjuncts in the fermentation tank, it is very hard to mask later. This is where using a combination of micro-oxygenation and oak adjuncts has worked. But there have also been instances where it’s very difficult to mask this herbaceous character. It’s very important not to think that adjuncts can correct all that is wrong, and things still need to be done in the vineyard to make sure your grapes are grown in accordance with your wine program.

W&V: How do you match your use of oak adjuncts to a particular grape variety?

Joseph: One of the first things is to understand the marketing strategy of the wine being produced. If a wine is being targeted to a consumer who wants high impact and big reward, then I will try to tailor my wine style accordingly. If the wine is being marketed as an easy-drinking, approachable wine, then I need to take that into consideration.

For instance, there has been a huge consumer demand for Zinfandels with big, rich flavors. So, I may want to up my level of oak in that blend to 40% new. I will also consider adding some different toast styles, like convection toasting, which will give me more perceived sweet flavor (less smoke and spice). I sometimes also consider adding a little bit of American oak in the mix to get more chocolate and coffee for that longer, richer finish. It’s really cool—you can work with a supplier and identify all these flavor components you want and, like a spice rack, they can offer you products they feel hit those desired traits.

W&V: What advice would you give to a winemaker who hasn’t used adjuncts but is considering doing so?

Joseph: First off, talk with a supplier about your desired outcome and their recommended bench trial methods. They usually have samples they send you and a protocol for doing lab extractions or cellar trials. I would recommend StaVin, Creative Oak, Moxon, Nadalié or Innerstave. But there are a lot of good suppliers to talk with.

If you have the time and your volume is large enough, do trials in a barrel—stainless being the best, but a neutral barrel works, too. This has been my best experience in replicating what will happen in the tank. There are staves you can insert through the bung, or you can buy infusion tubes that hold the oak beans, or just put the adjuncts through the bung, loose in the barrel. The extraction time is usually two to six months, depending on the size of adjunct. You should do it at the 100% new oak rate, if possible, then use this wine to blend, using a control barrel (same wine, no oak added). You can make bench samples of different rates of new oak using different oak adjuncts, and that will help you zero in your oak adjunct regime.

When doing the cellar addition, be mindful of how you secure your oak in the tank. Again, talk with the supplier about the best method. All too often, bags break and beans end up blocking valves or, worse yet, end up loose and in your pump. When you’ve secured your oak, be sure your wine is relatively clean and free from lees. I like to have my wines rough-filtered at the least, and I make sure the chemistry is good. There are a lot of spoilage organisms that find all those nice wood sugars to be food and can still harm your wine, even though it’s in stainless steel. Monitor your tank monthly. Make sure to taste and evaluate your tank. Mixing the tank a couple of times is a good idea, too. There have been occasions where the wine extracts more oak than desired. It’s difficult to take out the oak you add but easy to add more.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for more than 21 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2000.

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