Don't be Ashamed of Using Oak Alternatives

Celia Welch calls on wine industry to embrace innovation, remember lessons of Napa quake

by Andrew Adams
Celia Welch wine oak conference
Winemaker Celia Welch gives the keynote address during the Wines & Vines Oak Conference in St. Helena, Calif.
St. Helena, Calif.—Speaking to an audience of fellow winemakers at the second annual Wines & Vines Oak Conference, Celia Welch said it’s time to embrace oak alternatives.


Welch, who has been a winemaker for more than 30 years and currently produces premium Cabernets from single-vineyard estates and her own brand Corra Wines, said the environmental and cost benefits of alternative products should be enough for winemakers to take them seriously. Chips, staves and other barrel alternatives use more of the oak trees harvested for wine aging and also cost far less than new barrels.

The quality of such products has also improved dramatically in recent years, Welch said, and they now truly provide an alternative to barrels. “In my own trials they prove to be as good as, or better than, traditional barrels,” she said.

Welch delivered the keynote address at today’s conference, which took place at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena and drew a crowd of more than 250 people who attended seminars held in the barrel room of the historic building and technical tastings in an adjacent theater.

Welch said that when she began working in winemaking in 1982, a typical barrel-cleaning regimen was to use 2 pounds of soda ash per barrel. The caustic chemical did an OK job of reducing volatile acidity (VA) and Brettanomyces, but it also removed “everything else that was charming or delicious about that barrel.”

She also recalled how barrel cellars used to be much quieter before they housed the noisy machinery that now provides climate control and other equipment typically accompanied by the blare of music from cellar workers’ radios. Barrel topping often only was marked by the quiet tapping of hammers used to gently loosen wooden bungs from bungholes. “I just remember the sound…there was a romantic quietude to a day of topping in a quiet cellar,” Welch said.

The winemaker also remembered reaching into the darkness of barrel racks trying to find those wooden bungs that sometimes became saturated with wine and started to rot, providing a comfy home to fruit fly larvae. “I don’t remember sterilizing those bungs or anyone saying we needed to soak those bungs in really hot water to get them clean,” she said.

Welch also remembers several wineries with Brett problems and said more than likely there was a connection: Those traditional redwood bungs were replaced by silicone bungs (an innovation popularized by another speaker at the conference, Vincent Bouchard) that have proved to be a major improvement in quality.

Today, winemakers have more options to use oak in a variety of ways rather than just traditional barrels. “We’re missing an opportunity. These alternative products we’re hearing about are really, really good,” she said.

Welch’s remarks are notable in that most winemakers for wineries producing high-priced, premium wines rarely talk about their use of alternatives publicly and will typically only say they use them sparingly. It’s common for those in the trade and consumer wine press to describe the use of oak alternatives in a disparaging way such as a mark of poor winemaking or as a way to cover up the flaws of wine made with low-quality fruit.

Welch also asked the audience not to forget the lessons of the 2014 Napa earthquake that toppled barrel stacks at many wineries in the southern half of Napa County. One of those hardest hit was Laird Family Estate, where Welch stores many of her barrels. The earthquake struck at 3:20 a.m., and Welch said if it had come at a different hour, the scene would have been much more devastating than just toppled barrels. “No one would have made it out of that chai alive,” she said.

She said winemakers can stack barrels lower, use the latest seismically secure racks or strap the top barrels to their racks so they don’t bounce off and cause other racks to topple. “I don’t want any of us to lose sight of the earthquake we had two years ago,” she said. “Hopefully the point has been hit home well, but we owe it to our colleagues to do everything we can do to keep ourselves, our product and coworkers safe.”

Look for more coverage of the oak conference sessions next week at winesandvines.com and in the next print edition of Wines & Vines. Presentations and materials from the educational sessions will be available to conference attendees at wvoak.com.  

Posted on 04.28.2016 - 13:47:49 PST
Thanks for the wrap-up, Andrew! It was worth the price of admission to hear Celia's quote about non-coopered oak (i.e. staves, barrel inserts, blocks, etc) being just as good as and in some cases, better than a barrel. Time for the industry to move forward!-Alison Crowe