Last week I was lucky enough to visit Francois Freres cooperage in Saint-Romain, a small village in Burgundy France.

My visit was arranged with the help of Moke from Mel Knox Barrles, the San Francisco based barrel broker for Francois Freres and others. Thank you Moke.

The narrow streets of Saint-Romain

The narrow streets of Saint-Romain

Winding my way up the narrow curvy road to Saint Romain with my brother, I could not help but wonder why they chose to establish the cooperage in such a remote location.  We had to pull over to the side of the road every time a small truck passed by and I wondered how bigger trucks, which carry thousands of barrels a year from the cooperage, got through.  The answer to that came a bit later from Gregory, my gracious tour guide at Francois Freres.

Arriving at the cooperage one first notices the wonderful smell of  freshly baked bread, the barrel toasting room is right up front, for all to see and smell.

We started at the yard, where logs purchased at auction from ONF (the French government agency responsible for french forests) lay down waiting their turn to be hand split.

The raw material waiting in the yard

The raw material waiting in the yard

Greory pointed out the importance of tight wood grain, the primary consideration when bidding on logs at auctions. Here the smell  is vastly different, natural oak, strong and spicy.

tight grain oak

tight grain oak

The logs are cut to various lengths, one meter primarily for the 228 liter barrels, 1.05 for 300 liters etc.

The logs then make their way to the splitting specialist, who after years of practice, can balance splitting staves with the tightest grain while optimizing the amount of wood used.  According to Gregory, only about 20% of each log can be used for barrels. The rest is used for heating the cooperage, for fire for shaping the barrels and for fire for toasting the barrels. We visited during the “Great Cold’ of Europe, 24 degrees Fahrenheit, so we were thankful for said heating.

Hand splitting logs

Hand splitting logs

After splitting, the staves are shaved and stacked in a criss cross manner to allow air to circulate and then moved out to the yard again for 2-3 years of air drying, or seasoning.

Air drying, or seasoning of the staves takes 2-3 years

Air drying, or seasoning of the staves takes 2-3 years

During this air drying time, the staves lose about 80% of their weight from water loss;  harsh green tannins leach out and the wood gets ready to be shaped into barrels.

A special laser-guided saw trims each stave to a proper curve to allow it to fit to snugly to its neighbor when the staves are put together to form a barrel. One wide, one narrow, are put in layers next to each other where each layer will form one barrel later on.

In the barrel forming area, all the staves that form a barrel are connected together, by hand, using temporary hoops. Water is sprayed and the wood is heated up to allow it to bend into shape.  Hoops are pushed down the ‘skirts’ as the wood becomes more pliable to form the barrels. The fire you see in this picture is for forming purposes, toasting comes later.

Shaping the barrels

Shaping the barrels

Toasting the barrels must have been the best job on the day we visited, the temperature outside was 24F.  We landed on what the French call the “Grand Froid.”  All of Europe was frozen.

I asked Gregory if they have a set time or a formula for the various barrel toast options available, Medium toast, Heavy toast, Long Toast etc.  This is where he said he chuckles when he hears other coopers describe in exact minutes and degrees each toasting level.  It is impossible, he said, because the wood can be drier or more humid, depending on where it was in the stack, humidity that day, or the exact heat of the fire can be different–they can’t be that exact. That is why we have Frederic he said, after years of toasting, he can tell by smell and looks exactly when to pull a barrel off the fire.  Talk about hand crafted barrels, it is an art indeed.

Toasting barrels

Each barrel is made to order with the various factor combinations, wood origin, drying time, toast level, head toast, chestnut or metal hoops, engraving etc. Then there are some American wineries who buy their own wood in order to maximize the euro exchange rate. Mind boggling.

Monitoring toast level

After toasting, the heads are fitted in and the permanent hoops are put on.  Again, a cooper whose sole task it is to maximize wood selection for the heads is busy matching head staves.

Heads are fitted to the barrels and where the groove and the head meets the barrel is sealed with a special paste  made of fine wood shavings, water and flour. This was fine for about 90 years until recently concerns were raised about gluten ending up in the wine.  Francois Frere was ready with an alternative  solution due to a request from a Golan Hights winery in Israel, not to use flour in the paste so they can have a kosher for passover wine.

Fitting heads and hoops

Water leak test under pressure

The barrels are wetted with water and pressure is applied to test for leaks.  Here, Gregory points out the heads lowering as the pressure is released.

Logo engravings by a laser follow suit and the barrels are wrapped and placed in a conditioned storage room, ready to be shipped around the world.

The importance of Terrior on barrel making explained

So, I asked Gregory, why Saint-Romain? Isn’t it difficult for trucks to get in and out, a bit out of the way?

His answer basically came down to Terrior. The weather in Saint-Romain facilitates air drying of the wood in a unique way, which contributes to the final wine characteristics.  So much so, that they have conducted a blind wine tasting where the only difference was the location of the wood drying (they have a Bordeaux location) and could tell the difference.   With such attention to details and super craftsmenship, no wonder the top domains of Budgundy are all using Francois Freres barrels.

We are glad to be in that company.

It's always a good time for a glass of Chassagne Montrachet

Of course, being in Burgundy and getting close to lunch my gracious hosts could not help but open a bottle of a 2007 Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru les Chenevottes, made especially for Monsieur Francois by one of his local barrel customers.  A perfect ending for a perfect tour.


Berkeley turkey

Everyone this time of year seems to be either writing or wondering about what wine goes with turkey.  Personally, we always serve three types of wine for Thanksgiving at our house — a bottle of bubbly, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir.  We open the sparkling wine to drink with appetizers while the turkey finishes in the oven.  Then the Chardonnay (which goes well with traditional side dishes such as sweet potatoes) and the Pinot (which goes well with turkey) are opened and served with dinner.   But you can find articles in the Wall Street Journal, Wine Spectator, SFGate, etc., to tell you what wines to serve at the Thanksgiving table.

What I want to tell you about is what went really well with Uzi’s famous spit-roasted pork loin seasoned with rosemary and garlic the other night–Pinot Noir.  We opened a special bottle of premier cru Chambolle Musigny to go with it.  And just to gauge our winemaking expertise against this Burgundy benchmark, we also opened a bottle of our 2007 garagiste Carneros Pinot Noir.   Though they are very different wines and I almost hesitate to mention the two together in the same breath, they were both fantastic and both went splendidly with the pork.

So go cook one of these later this week when you’re tired of turkey and open up a bottle of Pinot Noir.  And next year, when you’re planning your Thanksgiving dinner, consider a 2008 Stomping Girl Pinot Noir to go with the turkey.

Pork roast and Pinot

Pork roast and Pinot


A few weeks ago I was making dinner for my parents. I was preparing pork tenderloin, brussels sprouts and roasted potatoes and they asked me what wine to serve…my Dad had referred to his Hugh Johnson Pocket Wine Book for some pairing ideas but Hugh didn’t specifically have a recommendation for pork tenderloin. He did have a great suggestion for Coq au Vin, however: “In an ideal world one bottle of Chambertin in the dish, two on the table.” One day I may be so lucky…but in the meantime, without Hugh’s blessing, I recommended Pinot Noir to go with the pork tenderloin. Pork and Pinot is usually a good match, plus I gotta plug Pinot Noir when I can.

So my brother brought over a couple of bottles of Pinot from his cellar and my Dad pulled one out, too. The Pinot worked lovely with the pork tenderloin. We drank 3 Oregon Pinot Noirs: Stoller Vineyards which was outstanding with the pork (and on its own for that matter;) Lachini Vineyards Estate which is an expensive bottle but unfortunately it had a slight, unintentional effervescent quality; and Erath, a commonly found and dependably good Pinot.

Back at my house we recently enjoyed a more unusual wine and food pairing. Bacon, eggs and Pinot. It was breakfast for dinner night at our house so we made mushroom and onion omelettes, bacon and French toast. There was an opened bottle of our house Pinot (Las Brisas Carneros) so I poured myself a glass. And surprise, surprise, what a match our Pinot was for the bacon! And the mushroom omelette too. In hindsight, the match is really not surprising. After all, a dish in the a la bourguignonne style incorporates lardons (bacon pieces,) onions and mushrooms cooked in a Burgundy red wine (Pinot Noir) sauce.

If you’ve had other food and Pinot Noir pairings–unusual or not–that have worked well for you, we’d love to hear them! And, by the way, if you find yourself in a bind not knowing what wine to serve with your food (or vice versa) Natalie MacLean has a great little Food & Wine Matcher gadget on her website.

During a recent conversation regarding our wine-making endeavors, I overheard a comment implying that Pinot Noir is purely a fad. My wife, taking offense to this comment, countered that we have been drinking, loving and making Pinot long before the Movie came out.  Obviously, many Pinot and Burgundy lovers have been drinking wine made from this grape for centuries; long before the Movie came out and long before the advent of modern marketing.  bellbottom

However, I do agree that part of the current Pinot craze we are experiencing is a fad. There is no better evidence of this than the fact that many current Pinot releases are made to please the palate of a non-Pinot drinker.  I am referring to the heavily extracted, high alcohol, fruit bomb, over the top Pinots I have encountered recently. They resemble a Syrah or Merlot rather than the delicate, perfumed, silky, nuanced wine that we came to love.

Now, there is no black and white in my wine world.  There is no wine that is better or worse than others.  There is only time and place; as in, every wine has its time and place. But I am a sucker for a good Burgundy.  We live a stone’s throw from Kermit Lynch (god bless him) and that has spoiled us.  It also has exhausted our yearly wine budget at only mid-year.  Our palette grew accustomed to Burgundies and we did not drink any serious California Pinot until 1995 when we tried Acacia while wine tasting in Carneros. The wine was pure and elegant; we were pleasantly surprised and grateful to find we enjoyed some Pinots made closer to home.  And our palate grew richer for finding it. 

Over the years we’ve discovered other styles of winemaking that take place in other regions–Russian River, Santa Rita Hills, Sonoma Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey, Anderson Valley, Chalone and Willamette Valley, to name a few.  Some of the most exquisite and intriguing we’ve had were made by Calera in the Gabilan mountains, on Mt. Harlan—far away from Napa and Sonoma and even farther from Burgundy (at least, geographically.) Each one of these regions is different and wonderful in its own way and each winemaker imparts his or her own style on the wine.  My advice is to be open minded, to try new wines and not get closed in.  I’ve learned to listen to my own palate since I am the one spending my precious running-out time with the bottle, not the reviewer or whoever else is providing opinions.

As we have been making our own Pinot for five years, I have developed a much greater appreciation for a superb one when I encounter it. In my experience, winemakers that allow wines to make themselves usually produce the wines I appreciate and enjoy the most.  It is difficult to restrain yourself, step back and let the wine make itself. After all, you might mess up the whole vintage and have to wait another year to try it again. The urge to do something and ‘fix’ whatever problem you think the wine is having is very strong. But we learn to live with what we are given, to try not to make a ‘perfect by-the-numbers’ wine, to appreciate the differences year to year.  Sometimes Mother Nature hands you a ‘non-typical’ year, such as the frost then heat of 2008 in California, or the unmatched heat wave of 2003 in Burgundy.  I’ve been in involved in agriculture and agriculture products for a long time myself, I know it is no use to fight it.  Instead you make the most of what you got, you work with it and if it gives you a highly extracted, high alcohol, juicy wine, so be it! It is better than manipulating it to the point where it is no longer itself in order to have it represent a ‘typical’ style or region for the sake of consistency.

So, is the swell in Pinots a fad?  Yes, it is a fad for some people, but it is a good thing. It is a good thing because we now have so many new wine consumers being exposed to this varietal.  Yes, some of them will look for their beloved Cabernet or Syrah attributes in there, but others will try wonderful and honest Pinot Noirs and will appreciate their nuanced elegance. Some of them will discover the great artisanal Pinots being made all over the world, not just Burgundy or Carneros or Russian River. And some of them may turn this ‘Fad’ into a permanent appreciation. And we will all be better for it.