Growing & Winemaking


Winemaker Interview: Corey Beck

April 2012
by Laurie Daniel
    Cost of barrels vs. staves

    Corey Beck, winemaker for the Francis Coppola Winery in Sonoma County, Calif., provided a breakdown of some of the cost savings per gallon of wine associated with oak alternatives:

    “Oak barrels can range from just north of $1,000 per 225-liter barrel for French oak to $300 for American,” Beck says. “If you use the $1,000 barrel, the cost is around $16.50 per gallon to age the wine. I will say that barrels at this price are still a big part of what we do, but they’re used for higher price-point wines.”

    For wines that are in the $10-$20 retail price range, using a $1,000 barrel “can be challenging,” Beck adds. “Really good” oak staves, he says, work out to about 60 cents per gallon for the wine.

    “We have taken the savings from oak aging and poured it back into our growers and buying higher quality fruit for these programs,” Beck says. “This is one reason why wines under the $20 retail price continue to improve on quality and have become amazing values.”
A native of Calistoga, Calif., winemaker Corey Beck grew up around vineyards; his grandfather, John Rolleri, was the vineyard manager for Chateau Montelena in the 1970s and ’80s. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Beck went to work for Chateau Montelena as the Napa Valley winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon cellar master after his 1994 graduation from the University of California, Davis, with a bachelor’s degree in enology.

But Beck wanted to work with a wider range of grape varieties, and in 1998 he made the move to film director Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate in Rutherford, Calif., where he worked as assistant winemaker. When Coppola bought the old Chateau Souverain property in Geyserville, Calif., in early 2006, he named Beck winemaker and general manager of the new Francis Coppola Winery. At the Sonoma County site, Beck oversees the production of seven brands including the Diamond Collection, Director’s Cut and Sofia sparkling wines. He also helped carry out Coppola’s vision for the property, which now includes restaurants, swimming pools, a collection of movie memorabilia and an entertainment pavilion.

Beck and his team have done pioneering work with their grape suppliers, using the Adams-Harbertson tannin assay as a tool to communicate desired quality parameters. (See his account, “Assay in Real Time,” in Wines & Vines' October 2010 issue.) He is a board member and past president of the Alexander Valley Winegrowers, and he’s vice president of the Sonoma County Vintners.

Wines & Vines: For which wines are you using oak barrel alternative products?

Corey Beck: We’ve found the sweet spot for barrel alternatives to be for wines under $20 retail. If you start breaking out the cost of barrels at this price point, you start seeing a lot of the savings coming from topping losses. Typically, a 225-liter barrel will lose about 500 ml per month due to evaporation during the summer months. The beauty about aging in stainless steel is that we don’t experience this kind of loss. Some other big advantages in using staves versus barrels at this price point come from the environment. We use less water because we’re not washing barrels, less propane from forklifts that are required to move barrels, and the energy it takes to cool a barrel chai. And of course, there’s the price difference between the staves and barrels themselves.

I’m a big fan of using oak staves during white wine fermentation in stainless steel tanks. One advantage is the ability to control the temperature during fermentation, something that can be challenging in barrels. We’ve also worked out some creative ways of stirring the lees during fermentation, which has been very successful in helping develop the wines’ mid-palates.

As for red wines we’re using French, Hungarian and American oak staves in most varietals. Selecting the type of wood really depends on the style of wine you’re trying to make. Take Pinot Noir, for example. The oak, toast level and amount is selected so it will integrate with the wine and never sit on top of it. Lightly toasted French and Hungarian staves seem to work extremely well with Pinot Noir. During the aging process we select small stainless steel tanks so we can monitor the temperature and oxygen levels.

W&V: How have oak alternatives improved in recent years?

Beck: During the past few years, oak alternatives have gained a lot of momentum. There are many different reasons, but the two that come to mind are improved quality and the increase of the euro against the dollar, which made French oak barrels more expensive. Some years back, there were only a few companies that offered oak alternatives, now most major barrel suppliers have a separate division just to handle oak alternatives. We have to remember that 61% of the wines sold in the U.S. have a retail price point of $7 and below. If you are a barrel company that only sells barrels, then there’s a lot of the market that you’re not able to compete in.

Most companies offer wood that has been air-dried for three years for stave programs; some even offer four years. This has made a big difference in the quality of the wood being used. The extra time spent during aging helps soften the wood tannins, thus aiding in creating a more elegant wine. Previously, most companies only offered 24 months of aging, so the added time has been something new.

W&V: You use oak blocks and staves in your fermentations. Please describe how you use them.

Beck: One of the main goals during red wine fermentation is to extract all of the color from the skins of the grape. In addition to color being extracted, we’re also extracting tannin, which binds with the anthocyanin (color) and creates a more stable molecule, thus helping keep the color in solution. Oftentimes there is more anthocyanin than tannin floating aro und at the beginning stages of fermentation, so one way to set color early is to ferment on oak and use its tannin to help create the bond. At the early stages of fermentation, oak isn’t added to alter the aromas, but more for helping set the foundation of the wine’s life.

Oak blocks that come in nylon bags work really well during fermentation because they help accomplish the color and tannin goals, but they also can be removed after fermentation and follow the wine to its next stage of aging. They can be used for the completion of ML (malolactic fermentation) and then for the next eight to 10 months of the wine’s life.

We use oak staves during white wine fermentation, which will stay with the wine until bottling or until we feel the wine has enough oak characteristic. Typically, our Chardonnay will remain on the staves for about 10-12 months, until the wine is ready for bottling. We then use those staves again for red wine aging—they still have a lot of flavor left in them and can last for up to another 12 months on the red wine. We like the products from Stavin and Trust International.

W&V: How about your use of oak alternatives for aging wines?

Beck: Aging wine with oak alternatives has really improved during the past decade because of the advancements in micro-oxygenation. Barrels have always had the upper hand in aging red wines versus tanks, because the barrels allow small amounts of oxygen into the wine to help it age. Recent advancements in technology now allow winemakers to calculate the amount of oxygen that is being used on their wines in stainless steel tanks. It’s been a real boon for the industry because winemakers can use small stainless steel tanks with oak staves and add as much or little oxygen as possible.

During the past few years, we’ve tended to use more staves than any other oak alternative. Staves seem to give us the most moderate rate of oak integration during the aging process. The last thing you want is to taste your wine after only a few months of aging and notice a large uptake of oak flavors. My advice to anyone just trying out oak alternatives is to make sure you have a clear style that you’re trying to achieve. Once you have a style, then it’s for the barrel companies to help provide products that can be used on a trial basis. Another question to ask yourself is how much time do you have prior to bottling? If you have 12-18 months, then staves would be a great choice; if less time is required, then segments or blocks might be a good fit because they seem to extract at a faster rate.

W&V: Are there wines for which you would never use oak alternatives?

Beck: We’ve done a lot of experiments on most varietals with oak alternatives, and the only varietal we don’t use them on is Sauvignon Blanc, but that’s more of a style issue.

W&V: When you buy chunks and staves, do you request certain forests, tightness of grain and toast levels?

Beck: Barrel and stave companies have invested in technology and inventory over the past few years, which allows wineries to have many different choices when it comes to selecting their oak alternatives. Most suppliers offer French, American and Hungarian oak, along with different toast levels. We’ve been able to work with a supplier to help select the right stave to help complement particular varietals.

One example is the endless trials we did with Stavin to select the perfect wood match for one of our Zinfandels. Through the different trials, we’ve been able to use a combination of American and French oak staves—70% American and 30% French—to help enhance the wine. Zinfandel can be fragile during aging because it doesn’t have the tannins that some of the Bordeaux varietals have, so it was important for us to have a mix of French and American oak staves. We chose the American oak stave because of its wonderful aroma and notes of crème brulée and caramel that worked extremely well with the Zinfandel. The French oak stave was chosen because of its contribution to the mid-palate and helping round out the wine.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.

Currently no comments posted for this article.