Not necessarily an often asked question, but we do get a lot of inquiries about our barrels – especially when our Tasting Room also doubles as our Barrel Room.
Well, children, the truth is they do not really come from storks, but from very talented people called “coopers.” Our cooper is A & K Cooperage, a small business run by the Kirby Family up at Higbee, Missouri. Higbee is about 25 miles north of Columbia, Missouri and close to some large stands of Missouri White Oak, the primary wood from which Missouri Oak barrels are made.
In case you didn’t know, barrels are all hand made. There is no machine that can assemble an oak barrel. The White Oak is a close-grained wood that lends itself to great barrel making and produces a strong tight seal when wetted. When bent and fitted properly they are water (wine) tight and hold the wine for aging for the period chosen by the winemaker to impart the right oak seasoning to the wine.
A visit to the cooperage is a fascinating day. Dale & Matt Kirby are your hosts and will gladly show you through their operation. You can see the barrels start as staves that are cut just right with a taper, then bent and fitted with the steel rings to hold them in place. Then they are toasted to char the inside to the specified darkness. We can buy barrels with a “heavy,” “medium,” or “light” char. We buy “mediums” for our wines at the Yellow Farmhouse.
Missouri is a prime source of American Oak Barrels. The largest barrel company in the world is at Lebanon, Missouri. Worldwide, French Oak (actually Limosen Oak)and American Oak (actually, Missouri White Oak) barrels, most made in Missouri, vie for the market.
We get asked a lot about the cost of a barrel and what we do with them when we are finished? In today’s market Missouri Oak barrels cost about $340 each, and can be used for three to five fillings. Then they begin to lose their ability to impart “oakiness” to the wine. You really do not have to stop using them, but their ability to have an effect on the taste of the wine diminishes.
We’ve not had to confront the question of what to do with our barrels yet as we are not that old and we have not yet had the barrels long enough to see. As you know some wind up a flower planters, but the biggest use of used wine barrels is the American Whiskey Industry. They re-char the barrels and put whiskey in them to age for up to twenty years. Since barrels do not wear out we have no idea what they do with them after that.
We have a lot of respect for our barrels. Look closely and you will see the skill and talent that goes into making them. We wash and clean them after each filling, sterilize and treat them to eliminate fungus, bacteria, and rot, then fill them with the wines of the Yellow Farmhouse for periods of from seven months to two years. If we are going to entrust our wines to their care for such long periods we really have to take care of them.