Journey to Harvest…and Beyond!

Barrels: Part 3 of 3

Photo by Squire Fridell

By Squire Fridell

Why are some wine barrels colored red around the center?

I had an inquiry (thanks!) asking that very question! The stripe is actually painted onto the new wood with the thick wine residue that’s left at the bottom of the barrel after the first racking (when we remove the “clear” wine and leave the residue behind). The red may look pretty but, most importantly, it hides wine stains that happen when wine is removed or added to the barrel through the bung hole. No matter how careful you are, it’s impossible not to get a few red drops on that gorgeous, light-colored wood. White wine barrels do not have the red center stripe for obvious reasons. Thanks for the question!

My last two columns were about the history of barrels and what barrels contribute to winemaking, so now it’s time to talk about barrel maintenance and upkeep.

Do barrels “go bad”?

They sure do! Preserving the freshness and sterility of the inside of a used wine barrel is a daunting task. After the wine has been removed, an empty barrel becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and contamination. Poorly maintained barrels have ruined many a good wine.

In a perfect world, the best way to preserve a wine barrel would be to keep it completely full of wine. But with volume loss due to evaporation (even though we “top off” the wine barrels every few weeks), that’s not possible.

Why does a barrel “go bad”?

Due to unsound and unclean cellar practices, barrels can “go south” in a hurry. A winery and barrel room should be kept as clean and sterile as a hospital. There’s even the added challenge of a little flying insect called a “bore beetle,” which drills a tiny hole right into the wood. (Apparently, humans aren’t the only critters that like wine.) We’ve learned to never leave our barrels outside, where those dreaded bore beetles are looking for some fresh white oak to make a home!

How do you clean an empty barrel?

Obviously, we empty our barrels in preparation for bottling, but it can be weeks, months, or even a year before we put any new wine into those barrels. When a wine barrel has been emptied, a lot of residue and tartrate crystals will remain on (and in) the wood. Tartrate crystals are a harmless byproduct that naturally occurs when we make wine, but they build up over time and should be removed from an empty barrel before reuse or storage of the barrel.

There are a number of timeconsuming steps involved in cleaning properly. First, we rinse out the barrel using a “barrel spinner,” which has a revolving, spinning head that blasts hot water under high pressure all around the inside of the upside-down barrel. Then, we repeat the process using cold water. When the water has drained, we use a pinpoint flashlight and peek inside.

Much of the time, not all the difficult-to-remove residue is elim-


It takes a long time to grow an old friend.