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How they house barrels: winery preferences in storage and tracking systems.

If there is one image that visually represents winemaking, it's the oak barrel. Softly lit rows of barrels present a romantic image of the winemaking process. For all the romance, winemakers know that barrels are expensive, dangerous and heavy, and require lots of space. Each winemaker has to determine a barrel storage and tracking regimen that fits his needs and site requirements.

In the 1980s, many wineries used fixed barrel storage systems or chock block stacking systems. The advent of stackable, metal barrel racks moved by forklifts revolutionized barrel storage. Now, new systems allowing access to individual barrels are appearing on the horizon. In addition, tracking those barrels and the wine as it moves through them is slowly becoming automated with computer-based tracking systems.

Dave Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, is currently building a new barrel storage facility. Ramey worked with fixed barrel storage systems when he toiled at Simi Winery. "They were the worst of both worlds. The racks weren't space-efficient, nor did they allow easy access to the barrels."

Ramey, who deals with 2,000 barrels, has opted for quad-pallet barrel rack storage. Each barrel rack holds four barrels, which provides for additional stability. With a forklift and rolling ladders, the quad-pallet racks provide complete flexibility, allowing for racks either to be worked on in place or moved to a new location for easy access and washing. Ramey prefers manual tracking, allowing individual work orders to generate the required information.

In Sonoma, Calif., Gundlach Bundschu winemaker Linda Trotta works with 3,500 barrels. Half of those are housed on two-barrel racks and stored in warehouses. Half are stored three-high in caves located at the winery, using a chock system. Chock systems reside atop two parallel rails, with barrels literally stacked on one another using wooden chocks as spacers. While time consuming, and somewhat dangerous to set up, chock stacked barrels present a beautiful and dramatic visual that Gundlach Bundschu exploits when taking visitors through the caves. Barrels are washed in place using a Therma CIP programmable system. There are two racking tanks inside the cave to facilitate racking, and each cave tunnel provides double stainless pipe runs that provide the ability to empty and fill barrels at the same time.

Trotta has used the eSkye bar code scanning system for almost 10 years. Named Winery Blend Software, the system places a barcode on each individual barrel. Hand-held scanners record the barrels used for an operation. The scanners are docked to a PC and the information is downloaded directly to the Winery Blend system. Trotta says, "It makes my life a lot easier. All of the information is at my fingertips. I can tag problem barrels, track blends and lots, and do it all with less work and fewer mistakes."

Casey McClellan from Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla, Wash., isn't as keen on chock block systems. He designed his new barrel storage unit to use the double barrel racks exclusively. "I like it 1,000% better than the chock system. We used to clean barrels in place, which was tedious, but I don't think it was as thorough."

McClellan has a 600-barrel inventory, which he tracks manually. To approximate cave-like conditions, he uses a humidifier, and to combat possible TCA problems, all of the water runs through a reverse osmosis water filtration system before reaching the emitters. The air inside the warehouse is filtered as well.

In the mountains of Palisades, Colo., owner Doug Phillips works with 350 barrels for his Plum Creek Winery. "Having a good place to store barrels, one with ease of movement, is critical when designing a winery," he says. His barrels reside in an insulated metal building on a double barrel rack system. He tracks the barrels manually and also uses a humidifier, but laments, "With a natural humidity around 25 to 40%, we can't get much above 50% humidity anyway."

Fintan du Fresne of Domaine Alfred in Edna Valley, Central Coast, comments, "Barrel storage should be suited towards the winery environment." The cool coastal climate is perfectly suited to his brand new concrete barrel storage structure. The structure is capped with steel roofs and insulated ceilings. Du Fresne uses stainless steel double barrel racks and moves them with a forklift. He employs a manual washing system as well as a manual tracking system. The barrel storage unit at Domaine Alfred features four separate barrel rooms, each with one large access door. If he had to do it over again, du Fresne would make sure to have interconnecting doors between each of the barrel rooms.

Ivo Jeramez, VP of vineyards and winemaking for Grgich Hills Cellar in Rutherford, Napa Valley, is using the OXOline system for his 4,000 barrels. Oxoline comes in modular units with barrels resting on rollers. It provides access to each barrel, regardless of its position in the stack. OXOline gives the look of fixed storage racks with the advantage of individual barrel access. Since the rollers facilitate free rotation of the barrel, stirring lees simply requires rotation of the barrel, a job accomplished in about five seconds per barrel.

Jeramez's barrels are stored in an air-conditioned, insulated wood building, and he's moved away from the chock system because he feels chocks require too much work and are dangerous, while not allowing easy access. When it comes to tracking his barrels, Jeramez is adamantly manual. "Being a winemaker is like being a parent. You have to spend time with your kids to get to know them. Some winemakers make wine on computers. I prefer to be more hands-on. I taste every lot every week."

Sea Smoke Cellars in Lompoc, Central Coast, is using one of the newest barrel tracking systems. Instead of scanning barcodes, this technology utilizes radio frequency identification (RFID). This RFID technology was developed and patented by Peter Taylor at TagStream Inc. Taylor's Barrel Trak System applies a serialized tag to each barrel. A wireless Barrel Trak Data Wand can read and transfer data directly from the barrel to the Barrel Trak Server.

Taylor explains, "This system provides real-time data input and access while standing in front of the barrel. Winemakers can even enter tasting notes using the Data Wand." Each tag holds 240 bytes of data. Aside from tracking cooperage, barrel history and blend information, this additional data storage allows winemakers to track flavor profiles of each barrel to determine the best tasting barrels. It also allows for easier tracking for custom crush operators. Software for the system sells for under $10,000.

There are as many different ways to store barrels and track the activity through them as there are wineries. It behooves wineries to plan barrel storage systems early in their building process. While there may be formulas that translate tons crushed into barrel space required, the one universal that keeps popping up is, "Whatever we thought we needed, wasn't enough." It seems that when it comes to barrel storage; bigger is probably better.


* Stackable metal barrel racks revolutionized barrel storage. Now, systems allowing access to individual barrels are appearing, and tracking those barrels and the wine that moves through them is becoming automated with computer-based tracking systems.

* Winemakers say that having a good place to store barrels with ease of movement is critical when designing a winery.

* New options like barrel racks with rollers to make it easy to stir lees, and RFID technology to electronically track each barrel, give winemakers more efficient ways to make the most of their barrels.

(Lance Cutler was winemaker/general manager for Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma for 15 years, and also produced wines under his own label, The Cutler Cellar. He has retired from commercial winemaking to focus on a career as a writer. Contact him at
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Comment:How they house barrels: winery preferences in storage and tracking systems.
Author:Cutler, Lance
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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