February 2007 Issue of Wines & Vines

Breakthrough in Barrel Cleaning

Winemakers give high marks to dry-ice blasting method

by Jim Gordon

  • Dry-ice technology for wine barrel cleaning is relatively new, but winemakers who have tried it are impressed with its ability to sanitize pricey oak cooperage and extend its useful life.
  • Blasting removes tartrate crystals and wine residues, eliminates virtually all yeast, mold and bacteria from the wood and decreases volatile acidity.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon wines aged in reconditioned barrels were noticeably fresher and spicier than wines from neutral barrels of similar age.
George Moskowite had a potential bonanza in his vineyard at harvest time in 2005. Like many other vineyards in Napa Valley that year, his Cabernet Sauvignon acreage produced substantially more fruit than usual--121 tons instead of 88. It was too much for his 2,000-case production goal, so he decided to capitalize on the surplus by fermenting the extra juice and selling it as high-quality bulk wine at $25 per gallon. The hitch was that he needed to age it in good barrels to rate that price, but didn't have extra cooperage in shape for the task.

Rather than buy expensive new barrels or used barrels whose condition might be difficult to verify, Moskowite decided to recondition 60 barrels as old as seven years with a new technology that blasts the oak with dry ice to sanitize and freshen it. He used Barrel Blasting by Cryo Clean to upgrade a variety of French and American barrels from multiple coopers to age a portion of his 2005 surplus. "These are barrels I would have thrown away otherwise," said the owner of Moss Creek Winery.

Cryo Clean, based in Napa, Calif., appears to be the only supplier of this promising new wine barrel cleaning service, and is busy blasting barrels for wineries as big as Gallo Sonoma, as high-profile as Caymus Vineyards and as small as Richardson Winery in Carneros, where Wines & Vines observed the process recently.

Barrel Cleaning
Equipment and processes that rotate the barrel around a high-pressure gun that cleans with dry ice at minus 109°F are awaiting patent approval.
Cryo Clean comes to winery sites for jobs of 50 barrels or more. Founders Vic Vasquez and Bob Flook bring a truck, a large, food-grade 250-cubic-feet-per-minute compressor on a trailer, their proprietary and automated, patent-pending Rajeunir (meaning "rejuvenate" in French) equipment and a crew of two or three coopers and assistants.

They remove one barrel head so the interior can be accessed, but not both ends, because the barrel's strength and tightness could be compromised. They blast the inside of the barrel while a device rotates the barrel around a high-pressure CO2 gun. They blast the head with a handheld gun. They use crystals of frozen carbon dioxide at minus 109°F. The blasting removes any visible tartrate crystals and wine residues. It also eliminates virtually all yeast, mold and bacteria from the wood, because the dry ice momentarily reduces the temperature of the wood to such a low point that these contaminants die. Volatile acidity also decreases or disappears in the process.

While the barrels are open, the winemaker can see everything inside and really understand the condition of his or her barrels. A complete visual inspection isn't possible with traditional hot-water washing and the now-popular ozone rinse (which Cryo Clean recommends be done after blasting, along with SO2). The Cryo Clean coopers also look for and scrape out any blisters on the interior of staves, which hold sludgelike wine residues that may harbor VA. These occur more often than many winemakers realize, perhaps one out of 25 barrels.

B. Flook & V. Vasquez
Bob Flook,left Vic Vasquez founded Barrel Blasting by Cryo Clean to bring a new low-impact, high-sanitation barrel cleaning technique to wineries.
The visual inspection occasionally reveals crawling pests, too, like a 2-inch black widow spider in one barrel, and other debris. Vasquez asked, "Do you know what's in your barrel? Can you tell by looking in the bung? You can't see the whole barrel. We find some bad stuff in them when we open them up. But when we close up that barrel we know it's a good one."

Once the barrels are open, the winemaker or cellar manager and the Cryo Clean crew confer on which barrels are worth reconditioning and which are worthless except as geranium planters. In Moskowite's case, he decided to discard several barrels that were at least four years old.

"It definitely extends the life of the barrel," Moskowite said. "Regardless of the flavors it gives back to the wine, I've had the chance to get all the tartrates out, to get the barrels very clean. Cleanliness is a really key issue for us. In my program it doesn't put off buying new barrels, but it does give you a higher confidence level in the barrels that you do have--extends them at least a year. I feel confident that these barrels are nice and clean and aren't going to have any contaminant from previous wines that were in there."

The four other winemakers we spoke to who have been Cryo Clean clients during the past two years agreed that the process results in cleaner barrels with potentially longer lives than they would have expected otherwise. Dave Palmer, owner of Jacksonville Vineyards in Oregon, said, "The great thing about their service is that it gives you an amazing savings and does such a good job cleaning the barrels."

Palmer said he bought 42 once-used French barrels from Napa Valley's Opus One, hired Cryo Clean to blast them and then transported them to his winery in southern Oregon. He recalled paying $200 apiece for the used barrels, plus $55 apiece for blasting, and received barrels that he expects to serve him for two or three more years, at a much lower cost than buying the same barrels new. "We use 30% new French oak in our cellar. This hasn't replaced the new-barrel program, but I might be able to use these instead of the new barrels if it all works out right."

B. Flook & V. Vasquez
Bob Flook, left Vic Vasquez founded Barrel Blasting by Cryo Clean to bring a new low-impact, high-sanitation barrel cleaning technique to wineries.
Consider this financial scenario: Say a new French barrel costs $700, and the winemaker uses it for three years, before selling it for $100. A net cost of $600 over three years is $200 per year. If the winemaker spends $50 on that barrel and gets one more year out of it, the savings is $150 that year.

The dry ice blasting method does a deeper cleaning than pressurized washers, which don't remove tartrates. Blasting lets the winemaker see inside the barrel. It is cheaper and quicker than shaving the staves and re-assembling the barrels, said Vasquez, and appears to result in fewer leaking barrels. Moskowite said his reconditioned barrels had no more leakers than new barrels do. David Yorgensen of O'Brien Family Vineyard in Napa said he found no leakers out of 50 of his barrels blasted in one day by Cryo Clean.

Using dry ice has the double benefit of a thorough blasting combined with a killing freeze of most contaminants. It's also a neat process that leaves virtually no mess or environmental issues, since the dry ice particles that hit the wood at 70 to 120 psi depending on the age, toast and condition of the barrel, simply bounce off and degrade in mid-air to CO2 gas.

Dennis Richardson of Richardson Winery likes how "green" the service is. "Philosophically I favor reclaimed, re-used materials, and this fits that mold." The blasting process produces no water runoff and Flook and Vasquez said the CO2 leaves no chemical residue. The only visible waste product from a barrel is a handful of tartrates to sweep up. Inside the barrel, the wood grain is exposed, a red stain remains in the oak, and a "sweet" but subdued aroma is detectable.

What's in your barrel?
What's in your barrel? Cryo Clean found this healthy black widow in one barrel when they popped its head for inspection and cleaning.
Vasquez, a nuclear component welder by training, said the dry ice blasting is like sanding the wood 30 to 50/1,000 of an inch, but rather than sanding it smooth, the dry ice enhances the wood grain and can double the surface area of oak that touches the wine. He maintains that blasting will bring the flavor profile of a 3- to 4-year-old barrel back to that of a 2-year-old barrel.

To what extent oak flavor is renewed by the process has not been definitively shown. All of the customers interviewed stressed sanitation over flavor, but a blind tasting that Moskowite organized for Wines & Vines indicated that wines in the reconditioned barrels were noticeably fresher and spicier than wines from neutral barrels of similar age. He drew samples of the same 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from five different barrels, 3 to 7 years old, that had been aging in those barrels for almost a year. The three wines that tasted the most commercially viable as high-quality Napa Cabernet had all come from blasted barrels, and the one with the most obvious, alluring oak aromas and flavors came from a barrel in which Barrel Blasting had also installed new additional staves. The company now offers this double whammy for $100 a barrel in conjunction with Barrel Builders, of St. Helena, Calif.

Other companies do provide dry-ice cleaning services to the food and beverage industries. In fact, Flook started Cryo Clean to sanitize coffee roasting and chocolate making equipment, before turning to wineries when Vazquez joined him. Cryo Clean continues to clean winery equipment other than barrels, such as wine presses, crushers, caves and barrel storage areas. But Barrel Blasting by Cryo Clean is clearly emphasizing wine as its core business. The company says it has several patents pending in the United States and internationally. Vasquez and Flook believe they have found a valuable niche and filled it with an affordable service that is needed by many wineries.

After three years focusing on wineries, the company is still a bootstrap operation funded only by the two families, Vasquez said, but they are talking to potential partners/investors. Vasquez said a deal has already been struck with a manufacturer to make multiple blasting rigs based on Flook's design and engineering. The pair of entrepreneurs hopes this will enable their company to expand nationally as well as internationally. As a start, in 2007 they plan to expand services to Washington and Oregon.

(For more information go to barrelblasting.com.)
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