When Paul Block, owner of Wine Barrel Furniture, moved to Calistoga he had no idea that his future would include making artful sculptures and furniture from discarded wine barrels and torn-out grapevines. After all, he had been trained as a chef.
“I had come out to Calistoga from New York to work with Jan Birnbaum at Catahoula Restaurant,” Block said. “But I was working six days a week for $10 an hour, and I just couldn’t make it work. I remember thinking, here is the master chef Birnbaum and he’s barely making it. It was pretty discouraging.”
After leaving Catahoula, Block bounced around the Napa Valley culinary scene as a cook for a while before taking a job as a busboy at Pizzeria Tra Vigne in St. Helena.
“I was making $25 an hour bussing, which was twice as much as I was making as a chef with a culinary degree and 10 years of professional experience,” Block said. “Plus I got tips — it was so much money for me at the time.”
But another benefit of his new job was that he was also working only four-hour shifts each day, which provided him time for creativity.
“Cooking was my first career choice, but early on I knew that I wanted more,” Block said.
After going to culinary school but before moving to California, Block had taken a few years to go back to school to receive an engineering degree from Parsons School of Design in New York City.
“After spending some time in the world of restaurants I thought I might actually design them, helping build up concepts from the ground up — you know, kitchen design, menus, even uniforms,” Block said. “At Parsons I learned how to conceptualize, design and engineer everything from buildings and bridges to furniture.”
Besides learning the fundamentals of engineering at design school, Block also learned the importance of recycling and reusing materials.
“The movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ had come out, and we were just starting to better understand climate change — it all had a big effect on me,” he said. “Because the process of design requires a lot of drafts and model-building I started using previously used materials — scraps of cardboard, used paper, nearly any garbage really — to make my models and even my prototypes. It was a real breakthrough for me.”
But after graduating from Parsons, Block found himself back in the kitchen, grinding away trying to make a living and finding little time or energy left for his creative design work. But that was before he’d left cooking altogether and became a busboy at Tra Vigne.
“I bumped into a wine barrel one night when I was wandering around Honig Winery, and the metal rings that held it together just collapsed like one of those collapsible cups — click, click, click,” Block said. “Then the staves — pieces of barrel wood — fell outward like the wedges of an orange or a blooming flower.”
The barrel had fallen apart, the wood staves were lying on the ground and the metal hoops had rolled off into the distance. When he noticed that one of the staves was rocking back and forth — it was his “Eureka!” moment.
“I’m looking at that thinking, hey, this should be a rocking chair. The idea came to me instantaneously,” he said.
He went to a few local vintners with the idea, and when Koerner (KR) Rombauer donated 50 used barrels, he was on his way.
“Back then a lot of wineries just threw away or even burned the old barrels,” Block said. “This was before anyone had made barrel furniture and no one really knew what to do with them. At one point Beringer was burning up to 9,000 barrels a year. When I asked if I could have them, they said sure. That was before they sold to Foster’s and when they did that agreement ended.”
By that time, though, Block had transitioned to making barrel furniture full time and was growing both his inventory and reputation for producing high-quality items. He found homes for his products at such famed wineries as the Niebaum-Coppola Estate, Mondavi and Bennett Lane wineries, and he’d also approached the chef Michael Chiarello of Tra Vigne to see if he might have use for a few of his pieces.
“I’d come in with a piece and ask Chiarello if he wanted to buy them or even have them on consignment,” Block said. “And they actually brought a few items, such as my salad bowls and a couple other items that I am still making today. And there are lots of other examples where local business provided support, too.”
The range of items made by Block increased to include chairs, benches, tables, racks, stands, food-safe platters, garden art and planters and has now reached more than 100 different design options. But for some it’s his benches and chairs that stand out.
“We love Paul’s work and so do our customers,” said Clive Richardson, co-owner of Calistoga Roastery, one of the oldest coffeehouses in the Napa Valley. “We have a few of his pieces in the shop and a beautiful bench and a few chairs outside. People are always commenting on both their quality and beauty.”
One of the reasons wine-barrel furniture is so valuable is because of the quality of the wood, according to Block.
“It takes 150 years or more for an oak tree to reach the grain density required for the highest-quality barrels — the older the tree, the better the flavor,” he said. “So the oak from these barrels is not only beautiful with its wine stains and patina but also because of the very wood itself. Most of the pieces I’ve made will outlast me.”
Barrel furniture was becoming more popular
“For years after I started I didn’t see a shred of other wine-barrel work,” he said. “The first piece I ever saw that I hadn’t made myself was at NapaStyle in Yountville.”
But Block isn’t bitter that his idea has inspired others to go down the path of making items from reclaimed wood.
“I think that the world benefits from using recycled items,” he said. “No one can make exactly what I make, anyway, because I make each piece myself and because of my unique background. Besides, what I’ve found is that ideas are simple but execution is hard.”
Using discarded grapevines for furniture and art
“Back when I started using barrels in the early ‘90s they were just being thrown away or burned — same thing that’s going on today with grapevines,” Block said. “ I’d like to change that and I have been developing old grapevines into chandlers, jewelry holders, tables and even just beautiful wall ornaments.”
Because vineyards that have been removed often harbor plant viruses, Block heats the wood to kill off any microbes or other transferable pests or diseases before he turns them into art.
“There’s about 20,000 planted acres of vineyard in the Napa Valley,” Block said. “The estimate is that about 5 percent of vineyards are replanted every year, so that makes for a lot of discarded vines that are typically just put into a pile and burned. Let’s take these beautiful pieces of natural sculptures and honor them in a way that is fitting, pulling them out of the waste stream and instead make art that inspires.”
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