Nate Weis Visits The Oak Cooperage

Just before Christmas, a group of Silver Oak employees, representing accounting, hospitality and winemaking, joined Silver Oak President Tony LeBlanc to visit The Oak Cooperage in Higbee, MO. Tony worked with our hospitality team to prepare his grandmother’s special meatballs and pasta sauce for an early Christmas lunch. The cooperage hosted a holiday open house attended by much of the town and our vendors throughout the area.

But I tagged along on this trip for a more specific purpose. Silver Oak initially invested in the cooperage in 2001 and in the spring of 2015, we had the opportunity to acquire the other half as our partner approached retirement. It’s very rare for a winery to have this level of vertical integration and be “hands-on” in the barrel making process. There are a few wineries in France that make their own barrels, and it has been done with mixed results here in the US, but never has a winery focused solely on American Oak barrels, and, more pointedly, coopering, forestry and milling all in the same region.

The Oak Cooperage
Master Cooper Danny Orton selects staves to make a barrel

My goal this trip was to discuss the materials and process with Danny Orton, the onsite manager, and design some trials playing with various elements of the coopering process. I wanted to figure out if we could tailor the barrels even further to complement Silver Oak wines. We talked through some logistical steps needed to vary the amount of stave seasoning, the length and depth of the toast, the grain of the wood itself, and the source of the logs used at the mill to determine how these different inputs ultimately manifest in the wine.

Oak is a particular passion of most winemakers: it (or the choice of alternative storage vessels) plays a big role in the style of each and every wine made in the world. However, for most, it resembles an ingredient. It’s something with characteristics they can ask salespeople and cooperages to specify, but ultimately they buy it from a supplier. I find it exhilarating that I get to participate in the entire process and go “backstage,” peek behind the curtain, and customize our barrels to our wines. Just as people are interested in knowing where their food comes from and what goes into growing it, we also want to better understand everything that comes in contact with our wine.

It’s going to be a long process fine-tuning The Oak’s barrels. Even if we decided tomorrow exactly what was the perfect barrel (and I tend to think that there is no one “perfect” barrel, just the right mix of slightly different seasoning and toasts) for Silver Oak’s wines, the wood we mill the following day would need to spend years in the stave yard before becoming a barrel followed by several years of wine aging to see the end results. This is another reason I enjoy making wine for the Duncan family: I can tell them that we’ll probably have some definitive answers on results in 4-5 years and that seems perfectly reasonable to them. These are folks who understand the long timeline upon which the wine business operates.

It was a professionally fulfilling trip, but just as importantly, I got some time to bond over Tony’s Polpette. Higbee is a community with a tightknit feel, which makes it easy to see why Justin Meyer, Ray Duncan and Daniel Baron created a special bond with this place. Silver Oak and Twomey have a similar feel, in which colleagues pat each other on the back in good times and hold each other up during hard times. The California contingent and the local crew broke bread, laughed and toasted to a wonderful holiday season and, although we were thousands of miles away close to Christmas, it felt like being home with family. The future is bright for The Oak, and I feel fortunate that I’m getting the opportunity to participate in the process from forest to cellar, something unique in the world of winemaking that I never imagined I’d get the chance to do.

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