Wine Barrel Process Cuts Risk of Brett

Oregon woodworker says Brettanomyces contamination reduced with shaved and toasted barrels

by Peter Mitham
rewine barrel refinishing
Rewine refurbishes barrels by shaving 3/16-inch of oak from used barrel staves before heating the barrel up to 400°F for two hours to kill any remaining microbes.
Salem, Ore.—A shave and a tan may be a prescription for eliminating Brett-contaminated barrels, according to studies performed by ETS Laboratories on behalf of a Salem-based barrel company.

Founded in 2009 by master woodworker Todd Dollinger, Rewine Barrels LLC refurbishes wine barrels by shaving 3/16-inch (about five millimeters) from the staves and then toasting the exposed wood to restore the barrel’s original flavor profile.

Tests this winter by ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, Calif., confirmed that Rewine’s patent-pending process could rid used barrels of Brettanomyces contamination. “Brett” is a conundrum for many winemakers: Some find a touch in Pinot Noir attractive, but the barnyard characters that the yeast imparts are not generally welcome at the dinner table. A Brett-contaminated barrel is even worse, laying the foundation for all-out spoilage.

By shaving used barrels and then toasting them with dry, radiant heat for two hours—rather than steaming or washing them—Rewine appears to have cleaned up contaminated barrels and made them good as new.

How it works
Peter Salamone, technical manager for Laffort USA and technical consultant to Rewine, believes the key lies in the fact Rewine toasts barrels at 400°F for two hours, During the process, the exterior of the barrel typically reaches a temperature of 190°F.

“There’s no organism, not even thermal vent bacteria, that will survive 190°F-plus temperature for over an hour,” Salamone told Wines & Vines. “Treating it longer than 20 minutes actually drives all of those bad components out and enables the toast to refurbish the barrels to like-new status. The chemicals volatilize and come out of the wood.”

To verify the results, Salamone took six barrels from a willing winery, then asked the winery to wash three of them according to its own best cellar practices. The other three went to Rewine for refurbishing. Three new barrels of the same make and toast served as controls.

The barrels were then analyzed by ETS. Those treated according to winery best practices returned microbe counts in the range of 100,000 per milliliter, while Rewine’s treatment virtually eliminated bacteria. “Best cellar practices didn’t disinfect or clean the barrels very well,” Salamone said.

The next phase of Salamone’s trial will examine the character of wines made in the refilled barrels, with an eye to microbial and flavor development. Salamone ultimately hopes to present the results in a formal article. In the meantime, Dollinger circulated a sheet at February trade shows to drum up winery interest.

Winemaker experiences
Brad Ford, winemaker at Illahe Vineyards in Dallas, Ore., said he accepts Brett as a fact of winemaking life. Illahe, launched in 2006, has a stock of about 80 to 100 barrels and aims to make wine as naturally as possible. It doesn’t engage in cross-flow filtration to address Brett contamination, so any process that eliminates it from barrels is welcome.

“We are a natural winery,” Ford said. “I believe I’m adding Brett to my barrels when I put wine in them, so this process means I’m not worried about it already being there at the start.”

Ford said the barrels that Rewine refurbishes contribute flavors similar to when they were new, something confirmed by John Grochau of Grochau Cellars in Portland, Ore. “Some of the toasting flavor profile is already innate in the barrel from the original coopering,” he said.

Grochau has worked with Rewine since 2009, when he introduced a line of affordable wines to address the prevailing economic environment. “I wanted to see if I could lower my costs a bit and still produce some good quality wine,” he said. “By and large, I try to earmark them for my lower price points, but I do put one of those barrels into every vineyard lot.”

He believes that shaving 3/16-inch off the staves promotes a faster aging period, allowing him to bring some wines to market faster. “One of my lower price-point wines is a very quick-to-bottle red wine. It’s seven months in barrel,” Grochau said.

“Shaving 5 mm, and working with 22 mm staves, I would imagine we’re getting a little bit better air flow through the barrel, and perhaps even a quicker aging of the wine. That’s another part of my equation that I see as a benefit.”

The barrels are holding up fine, Grochau added, and refurbishment has extended the life of the 300 barrels in his cellar. He treats the refurbished barrels cautiously, however, stacking them no more than three high.

Salamone, for his part, believes Rewine’s process is good news for wineries, whether they use it to simply refurbish barrels or eliminate Brett. “There’s a lot of 50,000-barrel cellars where 12,000-plus barrels a year are being scrapped out,” Salomone said. “You could conceivably recycle 80% of that. If you’re refurbishing 10,000 barrels, times $800 savings, that’s $8 million per year you can just put right back in your pocket.”

Or, he suggested, wineries could opt initially to purchase more expensive barrels, because they could count on doubling their life through refurbishment down the road.

“This is a paradigm change in how cellars will manage their oak,” he said. “You can increase your budget for new oak, because you can then refurbish it at a fraction of the price.”

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