Wine in Oak, or, Oak in Wine

March 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Wine Barrel Cooperage

We just finished two weekends in a row of the 34th Annual Barrel Tasting event.  Over 100 wineries in northern Sonoma County participate in this unique wine-in-the-barrel experience.  We greeted several thousand visitors each weekend as they came by to sample our new 2011 vintage from the barrel.  This is an event where tasters can also purchase “futures” of the wine they are tasting.

A few months ago in December, I kicked out a blog about oak in wine.  It’s a big subject, so let’s dig a little deeper!  At Kokomo Winery we age most of our varietals in oak barrels for practical reasons – a barrel is a 60 gallon storage vessel that is somewhat porous which allows the wine to age properly.  As I was talking to some folks who came by the winery during Barrel Tasting, one of the most common questions was “how will the wine change and what will it be like after it is bottled and released?”  For the most part, we were showing our barrel wines out of “neutral” oak, so, the fruit on the wine was dominate.  We consider neutral oak to be two year and older barrels where the oak and toast flavor has dissipated.

This brings up the questions of new oak:  What kind of toast?  How much toast?  Toasted heads vs. non-toasted heads?  Country where the oak is grown?  In what region and what size?  How long was the oak seasoned?  All of these oak choices and variations play a big part in the winemaking process and can make a huge difference in the end product.  Overall, our main objective at Kokomo is to show the vineyard terroir from which our grapes come from ensuring that that is the dominate character.  In a way, as winemakers we have to “get out of the way” so that the terroir is able to reign.  However, to make the best quality wine we can we have to use a percentage of new oak.

Now that we have been working with the same vineyards for several years, we are starting to get, what we believe, to be perfect matches of new and neutral oak for not only each varietal but also for each vineyard.  For example, our oak program for our Zinfandel is something like this:  Timber Crest Vineyard – eastern European and French oak (from the Vogue Forest), 20-30% new, 80% medium toast, 20% medium plus toast, toasted heads on the eastern European but no toasted heads on the French.  Pauline’s Vineyard – American oak and eastern European oak, 25-35% new, always medium plus toast on the eastern European and 20% medium on the American and always toasted heads.  These percentages of new oak vary from vintage to vintage and we source from a handful of different cooperages to get exactly what we want.

A cooperage is a barrel making facility and their styles can be very different!  The toast levels are often proprietary.  There is no standard for “medium plus”.  Every cooper’s “medium plus” toast level means something different.  We go out of our way to source from different cooperages because we consider all of them to be our collective “spice rack” and we enjoy the mix and match process of what each cooperage has to offer.

Well, this just brushes the surface of the complexities of oak in wine and how it influences the final product.  To conclude, our philosophy at Kokomo is simple – we use oak on our wine like we use salt on our food.  We like a little salt for balance but we don’t want to taste the salt.

Erik Miller / Winemaker

Back Home Again in Indiana

March 4, 2012 § Leave a comment



I spent all last week in my home state of Indiana.  At the start of the trip, I presented a quest lecture for Purdue‘s most popular course – Wine Appreciation.

Joining me were Dr. Christian Butzke and Professor Jill Blume.  360 students filled the hall, and, yes, they were all at least 21 years old, (although, it was hard to tell just by looking!).  This class offers a well-rounded education on wines of the world followed up with a tasting.

Tuesday night I hosted a winemaker dinner at the Indigo Duck in Franklin.  Fantastic venue and an amazing chef!  Wednesday was all about meeting with restaurant beverage buyers and preaching the word of Kokomo Wines.  The following day it was on to the next wine dinner in Bloomington (aka, “Enemy Territory”) at Restaurant Tallent.  David and Kristen Tallent are passionate and successful restauranteurs – David is the head chef and Kristen is the pastry chef and front house manager.  I am thrilled to see that the wine and food culture in my home state is growing leaps and bounds!  Truly exciting to see it on par with what’s happening around the nation.

Friday marked the third Boilermaker Ball where Kokomo Wines were served exclusively at this elegant black tie affair.  Saturday, I was able to catch my breath and put my feet up for a spell as it was family day!  Sunday evening came around and I hosted yet another winemaker dinner.  This one took place at the Kokomo Country Club and was a benefit for Project Access.  It was great to have Kokomo’s mayor, Greg Goodnight, join us for this special evening.  The week concluded with a guest lecture at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management.  It was an honor to present my story to these aspiring entrepreneurs.  The focus of my presentation was about the power of relationships in business.

There is nothing quite like a journey home.  Sights, smells, familiar faces, landscapes and old friends, all of these elements conjure up happy memories and feelings of deja vu from a place where you were born and raised.

Many thanks to all the folks who attended my dinners and to Purdue for the ongoing support, collaboration and keen interest.

See you next year.

Erik Miller / Winemaker

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