Wine barrels of today began their life over 200 years ago as a humble acorn in one of many designated forests in France. Imagine Napoleon could well have passed through one of these forests on his fine Arabian horse Desiree.

French law calls for oak trees utilized in the making of wine barrels can only be harvested after 200 years – an auspicious beginning for the wines we may have enjoyed last night.

The Cooper's Craft
Coopers heat and bend the oak sides of the barrel (staves), physically forcing the iron hoops over them. For the better part of the 20th century, this work was carried on outside. Now barrels are made in sophisticated computer-run workshops. The finished barrels would then be transported by ship to Bordeaux or Burgundy, or to the Napa valley. Many French third or fourth generation coopers migrated to California and trained locals this artisan craft.

The first time I stepped inside a wine barrel making workshop in Napa valley, it was like stepping into a Fellini movie. Ten-foot-high flames jumping out of at least 30 barrels, men in leather aprons with the sound of hammers striking iron ringing around this cavernous, smoke-filled room the size of a football field. 

Toasting the Oak
Much of the flavor imparted by the oak occurs naturally from the new raw wood, but "toasting" the inside of an oak barrel can enhance these flavors. Toasting involves exposing the inside of the barrel to fire, either over an open flame or using a hand-held torch. A light toast will take about 25 minutes, with a heavy toast taking up to an hour. The fire 'caramelizes' the wood's natural sugars and brings out complex compounds. From this, the wine will ultimately take on flavors that are toasty, charred, spicy and sweet depending on the amount of time the wood is toasted and the variety of grape. The barrels are marked with the degree of toast with initials "LT," "MT" or "HT," allowing the winemakers to choose which barrels to use for different wines. We try to keep all these markings when we repurpose the used wine barrels into our platters, so you can enjoy some of the original history of the oak wine barrel. 

In a calmer part of the coopers workshop, a craftsman measures out the exact diameter of the top and bottom of the barrel - the heads - using a giant compass as accuracy is paramount to ensure a perfect air-tight fit when the staves close around the top and bottom lids. The wine barrel must be perfectly sealed to ensure no air invades the aging process, otherwise the wine would spoil.

Wine Caves
Around 80 BC, the Romans dug into the ground below Reims in the Champagne region of France, to mine salt and chalk. More than a thousand later, in the 1600s, local winemakers found a new use for these ancient caves which offered the chilly temperature, humidity control and protection from sunlight needed for perfect wine maturation. Originally wine was placed in ceramic vessels and buried for fermentation. Later catacombs were used for wine storage until the French began digging dedicated wine caves. Present-day care of wine incorporates more modern cooling and storage methods.

From Oak Barrel to Provence Platter
There is usually a wine season every year. After four seasons the oak barrel ceases to impart any oak flavor. At this point the wine is usually bottled, or in the case of high-quality wines it is transferred into a new oak barrel.

At this time, Provence Platters purchases the used barrels, disassembles them, dries them out for many months and begins the process that will ultimately allow the Provence or Vintage Platter to grace your dining room or kitchen table.