BENICIA -- Cork Supply Group, one of the world’s largest producers and distributors of wine bottle closures, plans to start rolling out its own barrels this spring from a new cooperage nearing completion at the company’s headquarters.
Benicia-based Cork Supply, which has subsidiaries for North America, Portugal, Spain, France, Australia, South Africa and Argentina, has been distributing barrels from other cooperages and oak alternatives for several years. The company will continue to do so, but it also will make a limited number of high-end French oak barrels in Benicia for the U.S. market under the name Tonnellerie O.
“Our goal is not to be the biggest,” James Herwatt, chief executive officer of Cork Supply USA, said of the cooperage venture.
The plan is to produce 750 barrels the first year and grow gradually. Large orders for French or American oak barrels can be supplied by sister company VinOak USA, which distributes products from Quercus Cooperage of Spain.
Construction on the 20,000-square-foot Benicia cooperage is set to be completed in time for Master Cooper Jason Butler and his three coopers to start work there on May 4.
Mr. Butler and his team came together last year in France, where they produced barrels from aged French oak staves in a leased cooperage. Transportation costs for getting French oak staves to the U.S. can be a quarter of the cost of shipping for French-coopered barrels, according to Mr. Herwatt.
“You’re shipping a lot of air,” he said.
Tonnellerie O barrel pricing will be “competitive but not the cheapest,” Mr. Herwatt said. French oak barrels generally were selling for well more than $900 apiece last year, with some easing of pricing possible this year with changes in the strength of the dollar against the euro and slower sales of high-end wine.
Other cooperages such as Seguin Moreau Napa have taken to making French oak barrels in the U.S., but Mr. Herwatt considers Tonnellerie O’s edge is Cork Supply USA’s laboratory and bottle closure expertise as well as lower shipping-and-receiving overhead.
Cork Supply USA’s lab has a solid-phase micro-extraction gas chromatography mass spectrometer, or SPME-GC/MS, an expensive analytical device for analyzing the chemical makeup of materials. The company uses it on samples of cork stoppers that arrive from Europe to detect minute amounts of TCA and TCB mold compounds associated with “tainted” wine.
Not only will that tool be used to check incoming staves for the same compounds, but it will also be able to analyze the chemical signature of a winemaker’s desired approach to toasting staves, according to Mr. Herwatt.
“We can provide a service that if winemakers like a barrel with a certain wood source, seasoning and toasting, we can tell them why they like it because it has a certain combination of compounds,” he said.
Chemical analysis has been helping winemakers discover the flavor and aroma components of wine and also is helping them evaluate what barrels contribute.
For example, Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa commissioned World Cooperage in 2004 to develop chemical and sensory profiles of barrels.
The quality-control measures that Cork Supply Group has taken to tackle taint compounds in stoppers is being applied to the new cooperage. The new facility, like the cork processing plant there, is sectioned off from the rest of the building. Water used during coopering is charcoal-filtered and then run through an active TCA-removal system.