Growing & Winemaking


Focus on Oak in Winemaking

January 2015
by Wines & Vines Staff
Wines & Vines Oak Conference
The Wines & Vines Oak Conference will be held Feb. 11.

From the technical to the stylistic, the use of oak in winemaking will be the focus of the upcoming Wines & Vines Oak Conference to be held Feb. 11 in Napa, Calif.

Registration is now open for the conference, which will feature several expert panel discussions and technical tastings as well as a seminar about seismic safety incorporating lessons learned from the Aug. 24 earthquake in Napa Valley.

The conference includes breakfast, lunch and a trade show with more than 30 exhibitors ranging from coopers to oak barrel alternative producers and other wine industry suppliers. The conference will take place at 500 W. First St. in the building that originally housed the Copia center. Wines & Vines used the same building to host its inaugural wine packaging conference, which will return Aug. 19, 2015.

David Ramey to speak
Winemaker David Ramey will share his insights about barrels and oak aging, based on what he calls 35 years of trial and error. Ramey, who made wine for top properties including Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill and Dominus as well as founding Ramey Wine Cellars, will talk about cooper selection and how to choose, prepare, use and store barrels.

Ramey knows how far the understanding of oak barrels in winemaking has progressed in his long tenure as a winemaker. He recalls that early in his career the standard for preparing barrels included a soda ash treatment, followed by repeated hot water rinses. This progressed to just the hot water, and eventually to nothing except a quick cold water rinse. Ramey says he will divulge a few techniques for barrel preparation and use that he normally only shares with his consulting clients.

His views about the importance of the oak forest and the level of toast are controversial, and his method of keeping used barrels “sweet” for the next fill is antithetical to many. But what he has learned about these steps as well as barrel fermentation, lees contact and Brett control has helped him make some of California’s most celebrated wines.

The session following Ramey’s presentation will be a panel discussion featuring Janet Myers of Franciscan Estate and other veteran winemakers detailing how they clean and maintain barrels in their cellars. The session will provide practical information as well as discussion about the merits of various treatments such as steam, ozone and other barrel-maintenance technology.


  • A one-day conference and trade show Feb. 11 in Napa, Calif., will educate winemakers about oak products and best practices.
  • Researchers and veteran winemakers will share recommendations regarding barrels and add-ins.
  • Two technical tastings will display winery trials with innovative barrels and oak adjuncts.

James Kennedy on oak and tannin
Dr. James A Kennedy, professor and chair of the California State University, Fresno, Department of Viticulture and Enology, will present the latest research findings about oak and tannin. Kennedy’s presentation will be followed by Dr. Andrei Prida, director of research and development for Seguin Moreau cooperage. Prida will discuss the correlation between the compounds extracted from wood and the sensory perception of wines aged in barrels.

Don Neel, editor of the Practical Winery & Vineyard section in Wines & Vines, will moderate a panel session about making wine with a multiple-year inventory of barrels. Neel will quiz winemakers on how they mingle new and neutral barrels to achieve the wine styles they seek.

Two technical tasting sessions are open to the first 150 registrants. The Oak Trials by Tannin Level tasting will compare wines made from barrels that vary by measurable oak tannin in the staves, and by toast. Hugh Chappelle, winegrower and winemaker at Quivira Vineyards in Healdsburg, Calif., will present his tannin trial, and he will be joined by another noted winemaker.

Another technical tasting will focus on oak add-ins to achieve desired flavor and tannin profiles. Diane Wilson, winemaker and CEO of Wilson Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., will be one of the presenters.

Seismic safety
Some of the worst damage and biggest economic losses for wineries from the Napa earthquake occurred in barrel rooms. Images of toppled barrel stacks spread on social media networks throughout the industry and were picked up by local and national news outlets. In the aftermath of the quake, there seemed to be a universal sense of relief that the temblor had not struck in the morning or afternoon, when cellar workers and forklift drivers were working in those barrel rooms.

Making barrel rooms safer will be one of the subjects covered during the final session of the conference, which will focus on seismic safety. Joshua Marrow P.E., technical director of Partner Engineering and Science Inc., will highlight some of the information he gathered in Napa while inspecting damage and talking with winemakers and winery owners in the days following the quake. His presentation should help wineries improve what they’re currently doing while also preparing staff for the next seismic event.

A full-day registration with sessions costs $199. The first 150 people to register get their choice of one of the two technical tastings. Go to for more information.

More details about the oak conference can be found at Be sure to like the Wines & Vines Facebook page and follow #WVOak on Twitter for the latest news and highlights about the conference.

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