Buying your first wine barrel: 4 things you need to know

BarrelsAfter making wine for 7 years using carboys, and always aiming for a little bit richer, a little more complicated red, we knew we had to up our game.  At the Wine Maker Magazine annual conference last year, I attended a session discussing of the benefits of aging wine in barrels. It turns out that tannins in wine – particularly red wine – interact with oak to generate structure and body, not just an oaky taste. Of course there’s much more to it than that.

Even though all our wine making has used carboys, this conference inspired my thinking.  Could we use a barrel in our wine making?  Although we thought we could make better wine, we were daunted. We knew it would cost more but didn’t know much else. I started doing some research so I could get Susan a barrel for Christmas. It turned out we needed a more than just a barrel!

I asked staff at our local winemaking store.

  1. The idea of containers suddenly becomes more complicated

There’s bewildering array of barrels for sale. The most common size for home winemaking is 30 gallons, but you can get barrels in other sizes ranging from 1 gallon to 30,000 liters. They can be made from various materials including French, American and Hungarian Oak. It might be made from French oak, but made in Italy. You can choose to buy new or used. You can get a carboy for less than $30 but barrels start in the hundreds. Knowing Susan likes the subtleness of French oak-aged chardonnay, I bought a new 13-gallon barrel made of French Oak from The Vintner Vault in Paso Robles, California.

  1. You’ll spend time caring for your barrel – much more than for a carboy

It turns out you can’t just clean, dry and re-use barrels. When you first put liquid in them the wood swells. If you then allow them to dry out, the wood contracts and can split, ruining them. So you need to keep them full of wine or a storage solution (typically water containing citric acid and potassium metabisulfite). That means sequencing a series of wines one after the other or using a storage solution in-between batches.

As always with winemaking, you must clean your vessel after using it. Think about that for a moment. It’s easy to clean a carboy that weighs about 45-50 lbs, but barrels can weigh 30 pounds even with no liquid!  The only opening is an inch-sized hole, so it’s pretty hard to see what you’re cleaning on the inside.  What if the barrel needs to be moved? You’re not going to move it if it’s got 13 gallons of liquid in it.

Before we could use our barrel, we spent an afternoon designing and assembling a barrel dolly.  Using rolling casters and 2x4s cut to cradle the barrel, we were able to create a serviceable dolly that has helped to move the full barrel around our flat, concrete garage floor.


  1. You’ll need more than just a barrel

Particularly early in a barrel’s life, wine needs to be removed promptly to prevent over-oaking. I didn’t want wine that tastes like wood juice (too much oak and we couldn’t make the delicate French Chardonnay Susan enjoys). To remove it on time, the wine needs to come out of barrel and be stored somewhere else before it gets bottled. I realized I needed a variable-volume fermenter larger than the barrel, too.

Knowing wine disappears gradually through a barrel via evaporation, we needed to protect the wine from the air gap evaporation leaves. Since we didn’t want our wine to oxidize, as headspace develops the barrel needs to be topped up. So I bought a 5-gallon keg to supply top-up wine. Of course the top-up wine can’t be allowed to oxidize either, so I needed a tank of inert gas to expel oxygen from the keg.  I chose argon, but in addition I needed the hoses and connectors to supply it to the keg.  The list was growing.

Finally, you can transfer all this wine from one place to another using your trusty siphon but that might take a while.  As valuable as it is, a trusty siphon will not work to move wine from a barrel that rests on the floor to a tank that is on a table.   A better solution is a transfer pump.

The full list:

  • 13.9 gallon barrel
  • Variable volume fermenter (110 liters)
  • 5 gallon keg with hoses, hose clamps and connectors
  • Argon cannister and regulator
  • Transfer pump and filter (to protect the motor from particulate matter)
  • A barrel dolly

So here we are. We ended up with a lot of paraphernalia to connect everything together. It’s not just a barrel.

  1. You’ll make better wine

We’re still in the process with our first few barrel batches. We used it first to ferment some Chardonnay, then some Vigonier in the barrel.  Now we’ve moved to reds so we pumped in the 2017 Petite Sirah we had aging in carboys. Although we’re not finished with any of them we’ve tasted each and we’re encouraged. It’s tasting good!  I now know first hand that there are good reasons to use barrels to develop better tasting wines.

Turns out, if you have a wine making wife like mine, a barrel makes a really good Christmas gift.  Just don’t do it without realizing what you’re committing to!



11 things I wish I knew as a beginning winemaker

wine making demijohns

Having gone through a fair amount of learning about winemaking over the past 7 years, I’ve made my fair share of foibles.  I’ve opened wine that had a sparkle when it should have been still and I’ve smelled bottles of vinegar instead of the anticipated berries.  My worst mistake was throwing out a fruit wine before I played more with sweetening.  No one likes to admit their mistakes, but winemaking is an adventure and without someone constantly by your side coaching you, it’s easy to find yourself with unexpected results!

If I was starting my first wine kit today, I would give my first time winemaking self this advice:

  1. Use food quality sanitation procedures – The reason that home made wine has a bad reputation is because your grandfather did not sanitize (sorry, I’m sure YOUR grandfather made very good wine)!  I cannot stress enough how important it is to make certain that the equipment you use is clean AND sanitized so your wine will be the best it can be.  I remember washing dishes in a pizza restaurant long ago and this is the concept necessary for wine making equipment.  Three sinks:  Wash in detergent (unscented like PBW), rinse in clean water, dip in sanitizing solution (no rinse like Star San).  If you don’t have 3 sinks (and I only have two), just start with the cleaning step and repeat with the sanitizing step.
  2. Follow directions, but don’t be too exacting – The instructions for kit wines always give a temperature range and dates to work with, both of which will adjust for the conditions you have in your winery.  My first kit red wine advised a temperature range between 72-74 farenheit.  I started it in January when temperatures in my house didn’t rise above 65 degrees, so I placed a space heater in the laundry room where I kept the primary fermenter.  Needless to say, my electric bill was out of control that month.  I also found in my next kit that the fermentation would have completed just a day or two later if I’d allowed the temperatures to fluctuate within my heated home.  Just don’t try this if your temperatures drop below 60 F;  invest in a brew belt or a heating pad.
  3. Rack more times than suggested – In my early days, I concentrated on keeping the siphon still while racking, not to stir up sediments.  Sometimes that cane just wouldn’t stay still! Sediment can stir up and make a slight cloud in your clear wine.   If this happens, don’t proceed to bottling without allowing the wine to settle and racking again and again until NO sediment remains.  And a re-settling takes about 2 weeks.  If you do bottle and you see small debris in your bottles, then likely you bottled too soon without enough racking.  It won’t hurt your friends or family, but I’m warning you; they may compare your wine to your grandfather’s!
  4. Use a drill for degassing – If you’re going to try to vigorously stir with a manual spoon, do not expect to remove all the CO2 from the wine.  The only way to completely degas is if you use a drill mounted stirring device.  I have the wine whip, which degasses with just a few whips both forward, then backward using a rechargable drill.  The only thing you’ll want to avoid is a degassing volcano as the CO2 swiftly leaves the wine.  Remove a bit of wine before degassing to protect your floors from overflow.  A drill mounted stirring device should not be used for anything smaller than 3 gallons.
  5. Keep you wine levels close to the stopper – As you rack your wine further and further down leaving sediment behind, you’re likely to start seeing more and more headspace.  Always keep your smaller carboys filled to the top to avoid the contact with air that can oxidize your wine too early.  You can use a similar commercial wine or you can use a topping up device that displaces the air-space above the wine.  I use a product called Better top ups and using multiples can bring the level of wine right up to the top no matter what size carboy you have.  For smaller jugs, I also keep clear marbles on hand and they work in the same way.
  6. Wait longer than they say to before drinking your wine – Yes, the kit you’ve bought says 6 weeks (maybe 4, maybe 8) till drinking – it’s LYING!  If you try it, you will not have given the wine enough time to find it’s “feet.”  If you perform all the steps of your winemaking kit perfectly, you still need to wait at least 30 days after bottling to have it taste like it did before bottling.  And if you have made a red wine, it will not start to taste like what you expect from commercial wineries unless you wait at least 6 months, more likely 1-2 years.  I now wait 3 years before drinking my reds because they have matured enough to taste like the varietal I wanted.  Whites, are better if you give them 3 months in the bottle, but I drink them after 6 months in the bottle.
  7. Buy bottles and corks when buy your kit – Because bottles and cork supplies come in various quantities that do not match, it’s better to be over prepared than caught short on bottling day!  I always plan for bottles and corks when I start the kit, rather than at the end so I know I have enough supplies on hand.  I’ve made mad rushes to get the supplies I need on the day I need them and bottling is nerve-wracking enough!
  8. Get a floor corker – My life changed for the better when I bought a floor corker!  Prior to the floor corker, I was using a handheld job that required two arms to come down at the same moment to correctly mount the cork in the bottle.  Often the corks would stick out from the bottle a bit and sometimes they would pop out the side.  A floor corker changed all that.  Now I can cork 30 bottles faster than you can say wine maker!  It was a step up in cost, but also a valued step up in efficiency.
  9. Wear gloves when working with chemicals – I had serious concerns when I saw all the warnings on the labels of the cleaning and sanitizing solutions I was going to use.  I bought a cheap pair of dishwashing gloves and I use them exclusively in my winemaking.  The better ones are fleece lined, but they’re hard to come by.  If you or someone you know has ready access to fleece lined dishwashing gloves, leave me a comment!  In the meantime, I buy the thickest ones they sell at the grocery store.  Just be careful if you’re allergic to latex!
  10. Write down everything and take pictures – The adventure of winemaking has consumed my life and I’m sure my friends are sick of hearing about it.  However, every once in a while I come across someone who hasn’t heard I’m a winemaker and I whip out my photos to show them.  I’m proud that I have a giant fermenter in my garage!  Or perhaps they want to know what 100 lbs of grapes looks like.  I have my cell phone with me at all times during my winemaking process and I capture all my notes and photos in the EnoFile the home winemaking app!  Your notes from today will be invaluable as you try to remember what you did in next year’s batch.  Keep them handy.
  11. Find a winemaking community and ask questions – Finally, this hobby has many enthusiastic participants from the novice to the expert and many of these people have questions just like yours and perhaps the experts have already answered them! I belong to several winemaking groups on Facebook that will welcome you into their folds.  All you have to be is a lurker and you’ll see lots of valuable information.  And if you have a question, there are many people happy to help.

Winemaking is not hard, but it can be intimidating.  Kit wines make things easier, but a few basic learnings can help make your first wines something to cheer about.

Losing the Guardrails: Beyond the Home Wine Making Kit

If you’re like me, you started your winemaking hobby with kits. Many people start this way. I won’t add to the great debate about whether “real winemakers” use kits or real winemakers only use grapes. Having made both and having made great and terrible wines both ways, I know it’s not that simple.

I found that after making only a few kits, I wanted to stretch and see what I could do to better understand my own winemaking experience. Continue reading “Losing the Guardrails: Beyond the Home Wine Making Kit”