Over a Barrel
It was famous French foodie Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who likened a meal without wine to a day without sunshine. If you take that analogy even further, what’s a bottle of wine without the barrel it was aged in?
This is the question that’s been driving Pete Bradford and Marla Cameron since 2006.
The couple owns and operates The Carriage House Cooperage in Wellington, Ontario, where their handcrafted oak wine barrels stand out as an anomaly in the business. They are the only cooperage east of British Columbia to make barrels from local oak for local grapes. It’s a huge break from tradition in Canada, where most wineries purchase barrels from France. But with the idea of regional cuisine and the slow food movement gaining solid momentum, there has never been a more opportune time to play the local angle. Even better? It’s less an angle than it is simple honesty. Grapes aged in Carriage House barrels offer a combination of wood and wine that’s been winning awards in France and the United States in 2010.
The Carriage House Cooperage (named for the Trenton-area home Bradford sold to finance the venture) is housed in an 18th-century grist mill sandwiched between a pair of artists’ studios. This Loyalist Parkway location places them in a prime spot on both Prince Edward County’s arts trail and its taste trail — self-guided tour routes that direct visitors to galleries, studios and the culinary crème of the area.
The cooperage is an ideal fit for both trails. Charming as any studio, the deck at the entrance is decorated with furniture Cameron crafts from spent and second-run staves: bar stools, candle holders, wine boxes, tables and clocks. On toasting days, the sweet butter tart scent of warm wood wafts out the barn doors. Inside, the four-storey mill is akin to an Escher sketch. A maze of small rooms, lofts and levels fills the space between the main floor and the ceiling. Reeds, collected from local marshes, dry in the rafters, waiting to be laid between staves. Completed barrels, each built with 110 pounds of local white oak, are stored on an overhead deck.
These barrels were years in the making. Bradford relies on a network of area sawyers to let him know when they have raw oak trees available. Wood that meets Carriage House standards is sawed down and stored in Bradford’s back yard, where he tends to it like a crop. He rotates the planks — exposing all sides to the elements, seasoning them with the weather — for two years before they are ready to become barrels. Every step of this process acts as an integral ingredient to the recipe for the finished wine, and while Bradford and Cameron could talk wood density and tannic acids all day, it’s not exactly old hat to either of them.
Four years ago, in another life, Bradford worked at a robotics plant in Trenton. When the plant closed in 2006, Cameron encouraged her partner to pursue coopering — something she knew fascinated the former forestry major. Experience was the first roadblock. Dozens of letters to coopers in Canada, the United States, Scotland, France and Germany went unanswered, suggesting that those who can do generally don’t teach. Dale Kirby was the only one to offer a positive response. A lack of learning opportunities in North America had forced Kirby to travel to Japan to train with a sake barrel maker when he first started out. He was only too happy to be able to invite Bradford to begin a seven-year apprenticeship (two weeks a year) at his Missouri cooperage. Six months later, Bradford’s enthusiasm inspired Cameron to leave her own 20-year career as a pharmacy technician and join him.
It took two years for the couple to feel comfortable with every step of the art of coopering — a learning curve that’s reflected in Carriage House production numbers. They have jumped from an initial output of 3 barrels in 2007 to 85 in 2009. This is a far cry from the numbers at a large-scale cooperage like British Columbia’s Okanagan Barrel Works, which puts out more than 3,000 barrels a year, but it allows for the kind of singular attention to detail that appeals to Bradford and Cameron. Their mantra is a small but significant twist on a familiar slogan — just do it right.
In 2010, the Carriage House Cooperage hopes to break the 100-barrel mark in response to its increased demand. They’ve gone from providing a small handful of local vintners with a barrel or two each year to supplying wineries in Prince Edward County, Niagara and Gatineau with as many as 15 barrels at a time.
Geoff Webb, General Manager of Picton’s Black Prince Winery, was one of the first producers to realize the potential of a local wood/wine combination. Giddy over the prospect of extending his cooperative winery’s reach beyond the vineyard, he bought a barrel out of the back of Bradford’s pick-up the same day he met the cooper. That barrel, made of white oak from a forest in North Marysburgh, less than 30 km from where Webb’s grapes grow, aged Black Prince’s 2008 Chardonnay Terroir Elite. The wine, a delicate white with a smooth fruit finish, netted bronze medals at both the 2010 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition and the Chardonnay du Monde in Burgundy.
Word of these accolades has helped pique interest in Carriage House in 2010. Three years ago, the barrels were a much tougher sell. “Vintners wanted to stick with what they knew worked — French barrels,” Bradford says. “I can’t blame them. When you’re putting $5,000 to $10,000 worth of wine into a single barrel that itself can cost anywhere from $400 to $1,200, you want to be sure.”
Part of the reason Prince Edward County is such a good fit for the growing cooperage is the area’s own youth as a wine region. The county only received VQA designation in 2007, so the cooperage is learning right along with the wineries. It’s a small, supportive community. “And there’s nothing better,” Bradford says, “than being able to get together with the vintners and taste the wine your barrels have helped create. It’s just a real kick.”
Both Bradford and Cameron agree, the mix of the two trades — bottle and barrel — offer the tastiest mixture going.