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Master Coopers Blend Arts

A&K Cooperage

“One thing leads to another” has never meant more to me than what I’m about to share with you here.  First let me say that during the last 10 years of my life, the time that I’ve been into fine wines, I thought I had developed a pretty good understanding of what makes a great wine great.  I was so wrong -- so uninformed -- til recently.  And while I still have a lot to learn, one major element of what gives a wine its true nature was, to me, only a means to store it.

Master Coopers Matt and Dale KirbyWhen Carol and I participated in the Missouri River Wine Tour in April 2009, we met a lot of great people, had some wonderful food/wine pairings and learned a little more about some of the state’s better wineries.  One of these wineries, Cooper’s Oak in Higbee, provided for me at least, the best tastings on the tour, and not coincidentally I later found out, the first tantalizing tidbits regarding the art of barrel making.  You see Cooper’s Oak is the only American winery that has as an integral part of the business, a working cooperage right on site.

Cooper’s Oak was the last stop on the wine tour and since Higbee is a few miles further from the “beaten path," the winery brought the tasting to Rocheport, the host community, partnering up with the local general store, the latter providing the venue and the food pairing for Cooper’s Oak St. Vincent, a nice red made with the local Chambourcin grape.  Charlie Hargis was the winery’s representative that April afternoon and it was his enthusiasm about the cooperage and my innate interest in all things “woodworking” that led us to Higbee some weeks later to learn about the ancient art of wood barrel making.  It was an adventure that changed my entire perspective of wine making and further enhanced my interest in the art of woodworking.

On a warm weekend in June, Carol and I spent a few days in Higbee, hosted by Charlie.  We arrived late morning and got an in-depth winery indoctrination, complete with a full spectrum tasting followed by a teaser cooperage tour.  I must say, I’m glad we only got the walk-through that afternoon because Charlie was quite generous with his tasting portions as he took us through the winery’s fayre, and I was happy we didn’t need to drive anywhere that evening, if you take my meaning.

Raised platform toastingAs I indicated earlier, the Cooper’s Oak wines we tasted on the tour were my favorites, and I got a little information from Charlie that afternoon that helped me understand why.  Certainly a part of it is the blending of native Missouri grapes with grape varietals from elsewhere, particularly California.  I think it’s fairly well known that the climate in California is nearly perfect most years for growing the well known grapes in New World winemaking.  And since I was essentially weaned on California wines, it should come as no surprise that the taste of the Cooper’s Oak blends, weaved with Norton, Chambourcin and other Midwest varietals would appeal to me.  They did and they do.  But what I didn’t really “get” during that first exposure to Cooper’s Oak was the other unique advantage the winery has over its fellow Missouri winemakers -- the barrel.

It was then that we heard how Cooper’s Oak is really a natural extension of the winemakers' real passion and the business they’d started in 1972 -- A&K Cooperage, this country’s only traditional barrel maker and winery combination.  Dale Kirby and his son Matt are both master coopers and the idea to make a few bottles of wine grew into one of Missouri’s best wineries.  Their story is told very nicely by Carol on this site (see “Cooper’s Oak Winery”).

We learned from Dale and Matt that the toasting of the barrels drives the unique flavors into the wine in subtle and not so subtle ways, again, something that I didn’t truly understand before this visit.  The control of that process by the winemaker offers a huge advantage.

And that advantage has not escaped the attention of one of California’s premier winemakers.  Silver Oak Cellars is a unique winery, focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon and making a wine that is not only beautifully drinkable at its release but one that also ages well in the cellar.  And while I don’t want this to be a Silver Oak feature, something I hope I get a chance to do someday,  it is important to point out that one of the elements that sets this vintner apart from the many others in California is the attention they pay to the barrel making process -- from the tree onwards.  Early in their history, the folks at Silver Oak determined that American oak barrels provide the particular characteristics they were looking for.  And this Midwesterner was surprised to learn that Missouri, Kentucky and Iowa produce some of the best oak trees for this use.  Tony LeBlanc at Silver Oak Cellars tells me, “It’s not just the soil.  The weather in that part of the country is ideal for seasoning the oak -- the cold winters, the hot summers.”  Tony also confirmed that the toasting of the barrels is key, telling me “A&K uses a raised platform toasting process which provides a lighter toasting, something we prefer.”

Silver Oak believed in the importance of barrel processing so much that in 2000, they formed a partnership with A&K Cooperage.  And while they hadn’t really planned to make barrel making a part of their portfolio, having a relationship with the barrel maker assures availability and makes getting exactly what they need much easier.  Silver Oak provides feedback and guidance from the winery to the barrel makers to the point of having on site participation at the cooperage.  Plus, A&K personnel regularly visit the four Silver Oak locations in California.  Their relationship seems to benefit both companies and again, although I’m no wine expert,  judging by the taste of the Silver Oak Cabernet, something’s working right.  Very right.

So our trip to Missouri wine country for a nice little vacation ended up being a barrel making education for me.  Just goes to show you, one thing leads to another. And now, I believe I’ll have another bottle of wine!  Cheers!

For an in-depth feature on A&K Cooperage, take a look at http://www.ruralmissouri.org/07pages/07FebCooperage.html
Visit http://www.silveroak.com for more information on Silver Oak Cellars.

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