Saturday, May 21, 2011

Getting Wine Into the Barrel

In this post, former Fox Run employee Dr. Steven Hickman elaborates on one of his favorite activities: filling barrels. During his time at Fox Run, he emptied and filled hundreds of them. A generous and enthusiastic soul, he also donated to the winery the following:
  • an expensive camera
  • a high-end mountain bike
  • a microwave oven
  • cases of wine to taste and evaluate
  • plenty of his time
  • a gas regulator
  • a car, and
  • a little multi-articulated flashlight, which was so useful that it came to be known as The Hickman Apparatus
How many of us can say that we have a device named after us? Never mind that it was just a scientific-conference freebie: it serves as the ne plus ultra illumination device for barrel filling. Read on...

 The wine barrel – a romantic wooden icon of winemaking.  A staple of tasting room signs and wine shop displays.  Also, a royal pain to work with. But in this post, I’m going to pass over the difficulties in making, transporting, prepping, emptying, cleaning, moving, and storing barrels, and look at the challenge of filling them. 

A wine barrel is constructed from numerous wooden planks, or staves, all cut in a curvalinear shape that would drive most woodworkers made with frustration. When first made, the barrel is completely sealed. A 2 1/2-inch hole is then drilled in the side of the barrel, serving as the only port of access.  This is the “bunghole” (pause for snickers).  This single hole must trebly serve as a conduit for the hose supplying and removing the wine, an egress for the air the entering wine displaces, and a view-port to assess the height of wine in the barrel.

At Fox Run, 1-1/2 inch-diameter hose is used to move wine around the cellar. For barrel work, a one-inch diameter metal pipe (photo) is fitted to the end of the hose.  This metal pipe has two slits at the bottom, and is of a length so that it is just long enough to reach the bottom of the barrel.  This is designed  to allow the barrel to be filled from the bottom, minimizing the amount of air that comes into contact with wine.

So in principle, filling a barrel is quite simple – attach the stainless steel filling pipe to a hose, stick pipe into empty barrel, connect other end of hose to a pump, connect pump to tank, and pump until the barrel is full. 

A few factors complicate this process – the small bung hole allows little light into the barrel and ruins depth perception; the rate of which the wine level in a barrel changes increases dramatically as the barrel nears full; and the pumps do not stop immediately, but take a second or two to slow down.
It is considered poor form to overfill a barrel – depending on how far off the mark you are, this can result in a trickle of fluid running down the side of the barrel (not so bad) to a geyser of wine erupting into the face of the unfortunate cellar hand (this is why we don’t wear whites, even before Labor Day).

To avoid a fountain, you must anticipate when the barrel will reach full, and turn off the pump just before – somewhat like trying to hit exactly $20 at the gas pump, but rather than looking at a price meter, you are staring down a tiny hole, with a dim flashlight clamped in your teeth, trying to fathom the distance away of a dark liquid while lacking depth perception.  Also, if you happen to be working with Port, there is the extra challenge of overcoming the ethanol fumes that stream out the bung hole at the same rate as the wine enters.

There are some devices that aid in this process.  Larger wineries use automated pumps that have liquid level sensors on the filling heads, telling the pump precisely when to slow down, and when to stop.  Truly push-button operation, and vital if you have thousands of barrels to work with, but also truly expensive.

At Fox Run, the technology consists of a sterile rubber band around the filling pipe, and the “Hickman Apparatus”. The rubber band marks the point at which the pump should be shut off for a perfect fill – its placement is usually determined experimentally with the first few barrels of the day.  The Hickman Apparatus is a repurposed booklight, picked up at an American Vacuum Society conference several years ago, which perches on the edge of the barrel, and extends over the bung hole to allow hands-free illumination of the inside of the barrel.  It also, fortunately, is moderately tolerant of wine soakings.

It almost seems custom made for barrel work.

With practice, it takes only a few minutes to fill each barrel, with a minimum of wine spilled. For the novice, though, an overabundance of caution can lead to a very slow filling rate, and thus many minutes per barrel – a challenge when one to two dozen barrels need to be filled before the day is over.  A reckless abandon, while decreasing the filling time, will increase the time spent cleaning the cellar floor as well as you face and clothes.

Fortunately, barrels only need to be filled once or twice a year. And with time, many winemakers develop a deep nostalgia for barrel work, a process which gives one a very intimate and hands-on experience with the wine.  Me, I’m hankering for one of those automated filler systems.

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