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Oct 18, 2017

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Cellar Rats
by Brendan Eliason
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.3

On November 10th we did our final pressing of grapes at David Coffaro Winery, and now we have 135 oak barrels filled with wine staring at us. What did I do to celebrate this monumental occasion? I went to sleep. A full eight hours can be a beautiful thing. Now that I'm able to scale back to a casual 40 hours per week I'm hoping to the two-to-three weeks of abuse my body has taken will heal and I can bask in the afterglow of a completed harvest. After much blood and a lot of sweat I can finally start to relax and reflect on the crush as a whole and the wine we made. There's still a lot of work to do, but we're in the final stretch and the hardest and most important parts are behind us.

Now that the wine is in barrels one of our first priorities is to stack and organized them. We store our barrels on steel racks that're "H" shaped, holding two barrels side-by-side. To free up as much space as possible we stack the racks three high, which usually gives us about 23 stacks of six barrels. We organize the stacks into double rows and put one double row along the walls on each side of the winery. This is no easy feat. Each barrel weighs about 100 lbs. empty and about 600 to 700 lbs. when full. That makes each stack weigh about 1 1/2 tons. And although we can use a forklift to stack the barrels, we cannot use it to move the stacks around. To move the stacks we use a tool called a Pallet-Jack to lift the stack a couple of inches off of the ground. We can then push the stacks ever-so-carefully into their proper place in the winery. This job truly sucks.

Stacking and moving the barrels always makes me nervous. They represent a lot of money. Just the cost of the barrels themselves is expensive. A brand new oak barrel costs between $200 on the low end for American oak barrels and $700 on the high end for French oak. For us that's more that $2,000 in oak per stack. The scary thing is that the oak is the cheap part. Every barrel holds about 60 gallons of wine. This roughly translates to 25 cases of wine per barrel. Retail price for our wines averages $240 per case. That translates to about $6,000 per barrel and $36,000 per stack of barrels. I've never dropped a full barrel myself but I know people that have and it's a very expensive mistake to make.

We strive to keep all our varieties and vineyard blocks separate through fermentation and aging. We refer to these separate entities as "lots." At Coffaro we have more than 45 individual lots of wine which we've put in more than a dozen different types of oak barrels. This means that very few of our 135 barrels are the same. This great diversity gives us much greater leeway in blending and gives our wines greater complexity. This diversity also means we have to do a little extra work to keep track of all of the different wines we have. Thus, once the barrels are stacked David and I go through and map out every barrel the wine that's in them.

While all this stacking and mapping is going on the wines continue to go through malo-lactic fermentation (ML) in the barrels. If you remember from the last issue, all red wines and most whites go through ML. It's a bacterial process that changes the malic acid that's naturally found in wine (it's the same acid that makes green apples taste tart) and changes it into lactic acid (the same acid found in milk). Anyway this process usually takes two to three weeks from start to finish. Once ML is complete I go from barrel to barrel and add 75 ml of a six percent sulfur solution to protect the wine from oxidation and infection by unwanted bacteria. This job also REALLY sucks. Not only does the sulfur stink but I have to climb up 23 stacks in order to reach each barrel.

Around this time I also have to climb the stacks to top-up each barrel. Any guess what we call this? Ding ding ding. That's right, topping off. Why do we have to do this? Well oak is a semipermeable material that allows a small amount of wine to slowly evaporate away. In Cognac France they call this "The Angels Share" (it sounds cooler in French). In America they call it climbing through the stacks of barrels like a trained monkey once or twice a month to top off every barrel so that air (oxygen) doesn't come in contact with the wine and oxidize it. On average every barrel will loose about two bottles of wine per month. For our production that's roughly about one barrel per month lost in evaporation. Man, those angels drink well... and a lot!

On the more interesting side of things, Dave and I now have the opportunity to go through the barrels and taste what we have to work with this year. We're also able to give limited barrel tasting tours to our customers that stop by and say "hi!" Normally, tasting wine at Coffaro for the public is difficult because we sell out of everything we make before the wines are even bottled. Therefore we have nothing to pour in our tasting room. To compensate for this Dave gives visitors a very fascinating barrel tour that allows them to taste the individual components of the wines. This way they're to get a much better feel for the winemaking process and how we produced the wines that they've bought. Even though I've done this many times over I'm still utterly fascinated by the process of blending the distinctly separate components into a cohesive product (i.e. yummy wine).

Next issue we'll go back into the vineyard and look at pruning. 'Til then, you can always check our or harvest diary at For some reason I got this hankerin' for bananas...

Check out Brendan's "Harvest Diary -- A week in the life of Crush at David Coffaro Winery" at

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