Forty years ago, when Barrel Builders started business, you would be hard pressed to see many small French oak barrels lining Napa Valley winery cellars. The use of these barrels for aging wine was not yet popular. There were early pioneers for sure, likely even before J. D. Zellerbach of Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma used French oak in the late 1950s, followed by Joseph Heitz. The Mondavis tried French oak first at Krug, and then Robert, as he was especially good at, championed its use to a wider audience through his new winery in the later ’60s.
American oak barrels were available at the time, many of them cast-offs from the more popular bourbon industry. There were also numerous restoring firms along the North Coast, which took leaking barrels apart and reconstructed them piece by piece in an effort to eke a few more years’ life out of them. However, for small French oak barrels, Barrel Builders’ owner, Phil Burton, states “you either had a connection in France or you went to Barrel Builders” in the early ’70s.
Barrels coming from France were not shipped as completed products to the States. They were partially finished in France and then taken back apart for the trip across the ocean. In order to piece the barrels together once they arrived on American shores, the French cooperage sent over employees who taught the staff how to assemble the pieces into a beverage-tight barrel.
Seeing a niche market and knowing they could fulfill it, three Mondavi employees who had been trained in barrel construction Skip Lane, Don Surplus and Keith Roberts decided to strike out on their own, creating Barrel Builders. Duane Wall (Wall Road in Oakville is named after his family) would join the group, and Barrel Builders became the first barrel supplier in Napa Valley.
Barrel Builders set up shop on Lodi Lane in St. Helena and began shipping “shooks” — barrel parts — directly from French cooperages.
Burton explained, the French were extremely clever. They would ship two full barrels without the heads (bottom and top) and inside these barrels they would include enough staves (the wooden slats that comprise the main body of the barrel) for three barrels, and the heads for five barrels. All told, five barrels could be re-constructed using all of the materials shipped with these two wine barrels.
Over the years, there were comings and goings at Barrel Builders. Keith Roberts would go on to start the venerable Mendocino Cooperage. In the early ’80s, the French cooperage, Nadalié, sold barrels through Barrel Builders and built a cooperage on Tubbs Lane in Calistoga. This was the first manufacturing plant for barrels in the valley, where barrels could be constructed from scratch. Demptos would come two years later, in 1982.
Barrel Builders would later part from Nadalié, with Duane Wall staying on at the cooperage. Today Nadalié still makes barrels on Tubbs Lane and founder Jean-Jacques’ son, Vincent Nadalié, has just joined the company. In 1989, Barrel Builders formed a new French connection with Tonnellerie Marchive that remains today.
In 1986, Burton and four other employees bought the company from the original owners. And in 1991, Burton became the sole owner when he bought out the last of these employees, being the “last man standing”, or as he calls it “till death do us part.”
But Burton was not done experimenting and evolving the business. He set his sights on Central European oak. Viewing these as similar in flavors to the popular French oak, Burton was determined to find a source of wood that would produce great barrels for less money. Right after the fall of communism in the region, doing business there became more viable. Barrel Builder’s first foray into Central European oak came with a Czech Republic producer. Told that the wood was drying nicely in their European yard, Burton decided to visit the first container of barrels before they headed to the U.S. However, not only were there no barrels for Burton to inspect, there was not even a scrap of wood. It had all been sold off to a higher bidder.
Burton would eventually be connected with the Hungarian producer, Kadar, through an ex-pat family, the Molnars. Kadar works with Barrel Builders today, and Burton says they produce what he was determined to find all along — a European oak cooper who could produce quality barrels for less money than their French counterparts.
Barrel Builders have grown up with the Napa Valley wine industry and have survived the ups and downs of the industry right along with the wineries. Happy 40th Barrel Builders!
Catherine Seda believes that wine is a million stories. She holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the WSET and handles international wine accounts at Balzac Communications in Napa. Have a compelling wine tale? Contact Catherine at email@example.com.