Monday, January 31, 2011

Who the hell is Rick DeFerrari and Oregon Barrel Works anyway?

It all started when I was working at a winery in the Northern Willamette Valley, less than a mile from where I grew up. There the seed was planted to make barrels. At first it was the idea of making barrels from Oregon oak. What a great match my passion for wine making and my formal education in forest engineering, and what a great match for Oregon wineries- Oregon wine in Oregon oak barrels.

At the time I was living a semi-transient life; working spring and summer in Alaska in the forestry field, coming home in the fall to work crush, and taking most of the winter off. In 1992 I decided to spend the winter traveling in Europe- you know, load your backpack, buy a Euro rail pass, see the sights. The plan was France, Germany, Italy, and then end up on some beach in the Greek isles drinking ouzo.

The harvest in 1992 was early and by the time I arrived home from Alaska in early September all of the pinot noir was picked and fermenting. By mid-October I was boarding a plane for Paris. Through some friends I had made arrangements to visit the Francois Freres cooperage in Burgundy.

The visit went well and talk soon turned to my idea of making barrels from Oregon oak. I was invited back the next day to accompany the log buyer on a trip to the Vosges region to procure some logs. The next week I was asked if I would like to work in the stave mill splitting French oak. From there I started working in the stave mill and then the cooperage. The Francois took my training very seriously. Not only were they adamant about teaching me each step in the barrel making process, but soon they were scheduling tastings for me to increase my knowledge about the interaction of wood and wine. The Greek isles would have to wait.

Log buying in the Vosges Forest of France 1992. I am on the right in the back

Running low on funds, I returned to Oregon in time for the harvest in 1993. I had worked alongside Michael Etzel for several harvests at Ponzi Vineyards. Michael was starting up Beaux Freres Winery and that year I worked for him and for Steve Doerner at Cristom Vineyards. I worked with Michael at Beaux Freres in the morning and and with Steve at Cristom in the afternoon and evening.

At the same time I started researching Oregon oak. I kept my research in a wooden apple box in the back seat of my 1978 International Scout. The Francois visited Oregon and I was able to sell them on the idea of building barrels from Oregon oak. In some ways I sold them the apple box in the back of my truck. I still have the apple box. I use it for a book shelf in my office, but sadly, the Scout is a different story.

The Scout, some of the first Oregon Oak logs and me at the barn in Newberg

This lead to Francois Freres D'Oregon, a partnership between the Francois and Rick DeFerrari, focusing on making staves from Oregon oak. I bought a used bandsaw, had a French style log splitter built, rented an old barn outside of Newberg and started buying Oregon oak logs. We were off an running.

Francois Freres D'Oregon was basically a stave mill. I would go to the forest to select trees, split the wood in the traditional French method and stack it for air-drying. The wood was then shipped to Demptos in Napa, a cooperage owned by the Francois family, where the barrels were built. I would go to Demptos to oversee the barrel construction. The barrels were branded Francois Freres D'Oregon and we were in charge of marketing the barrels. During this time the business grew from fifty barrels to over 1500 barrels.

Splitting an Oregon oak log as Jean Francois looks on

Splitting Oregon oak was challenging. Our average yields were around 20%. This left us a lot of wood that was unusable for barrels. The short lengths and random widths of the wood made it unsuitable for the normal markets like flooring, furniture or cabinet making. The natural outlet was barrel alternatives; toasted chips and inserts. The Francois were less than excited about the idea. Chips and inserts were strictly forbidden by law in France at this time (although many wineries used them). But potential income for a start-up business is a no match for tradition and pride.

We bought a used peanut roaster and a chipper and started making toasted Oregon oak chips for winemaking. My first load of toasted chips were dumped straight from the roaster into a plywood bin to cool. The plywood bin and the chips promptly caught on fire. There was definitely a learning curve, but soon barrel alternatives were bringing in much needed money.

The partnership with the Francois lasted form 1993 to 2000. My goal was to build barrels in Oregon and it was becoming clear that the Francois had a different idea. In 2000 I bought the Francois out of the business and created Oregon Barrel Works.

It felt like starting over. It was a one man show. I would go on the road selling chips and inserts, an then come home and make them. I often worked late in the night the night (actually, I guess it was technically morning) to meet production deadlines. All of the revenue was spent on more Oregon oak logs and all my spare time was devoted to making staves. The barrel stave inventory dropped to the same level produced in 1994, but I felt like I was on track to make barrels in Oregon.

In 2004 I was able to scratch up enough cash to buy a piece of industrial property, and I set out to build a building. How hard could it be? I am an engineer, after all, never mind that my degree is in forest engineering. I could be the general contractor. Why pay someone to do that?

The concrete contractor was more than two months late in finishing, which caused us to miss the opening the building contractor had. I was told it would be three months before the next opening. The building was a pre-fab steel building, sort of like a large erector set. I took a look at the plans and decided that my crew of two and I could build the building- no problem. I like to think we finished before the original contractor could have and under his cost, but I'm not sure if that's true. I do know that I can cross steel building erector and general contractor off my list of possible careers.

In 2005 I returned to France with two goals; find a jointer and learn to build wooden fermenters. Francois Freres sold me the jointer. And I worked at work at Taransaud, a cooperage in Cognac, building wooden tanks for the Hennessy distillery. One of the head coopers at Taransaud had plans of starting a small cooperage in his retirement. He had acquired all the necessary equipment, but as retirement grew closer he was rethinking his plan of starting a cooperage. Fishing was looking better to him than pounding hoops, so he sold me all of his equipment to build barrels.

The equipment arrived early in 2006. It was this year that I truly perfected what I like to call “drinkering”- a combination of drinking and tinkering. After my workday at Oregon Barrel Works I would have a beer (okay, maybe more than one) and work on rebuilding the equipment. In the fall of 2006 we made the first Oregon made Oregon oak barrels. Well, probably not the first, since there were cooperages in Oregon up until the 1940's. But at least the first in more than 50 years.

That year we were asked to re-toast some French barrels for Domaine Serene. The retoasted barrels showed well and in 2007 Domaine Serene, along with several other wineries, wanted us to make barrels using French oak. I was able to purchase three year air dried French staves- not an easy task. I created the company name Tonellerie DeFerrari for the French oak barrels made at our cooperage in Oregon.

Since 2007 Tonellerie DeFerrari and Oregon Barrels Works have increased production. We now offer barrels from six different French forest. We make barrel form 35 liters to 400 liters. This year we are going to build our first wooden fermenters from Oregon oak and we have some French ones in the works. We do repair work for wineries throughout the Pacific Northwest and warrantee repair for all the major cooperages. And we still make chips and inserts from both Oregon and French oak. I also make a few barrels of wine each year under the DeFerrari label. Of course, the wine is aged in barrels produced by Oregon Barrel Works and Tonellerie DeFerrari.

I have been lucky enough to visit France each year since 2005. The trips are a crazy mix of visiting wineries and cooperages, eating oysters in Paris, and spending time in the forests of France with our stave supplier. Last year I happened upon some more used barrel equipment and it is due to arrive in March. I sometimes wonder if I am running a cooperage or a home for wayward French coopering equipment.

As I start my 19th year in the cooperage business I can truly said that I love what I do. Of course, there are challenges with owning a small business, but I have a talented and enthusiastic team at Oregon Barrel Works who share my vision of making the very best barrels.

1 comment:

  1. Great story, Rick! Bravo to all your hard work, perseverance, and ingenuity - I have certainly appreciated working with you and with your TdF barrels.