Ask Wine Wizard

The Oak Necessities


Lettie Contreras — Atascadero, California asks,

I’ve just started making wine at home and I’m not committed enough to the hobby to drop $1,500 USD (or more!) on a French or American oak barrel, let alone make 59 gallons (225 L) (that’s almost 25 cases) of wine. I want to make a good red, maybe this year with a kit and maybe with grapes if I can find some — what are the ways I can make a smaller batch yet still get some oak aromas and flavors into my finished product without breaking the bank? And how do I use them?

I hear you about not wanting to drop that kind of cash for a new barrel, especially as a new hobbyist. If you spread the cost of “good use” years for a new barrel over the volume of wine produced (let’s say three years of oak flavor extraction over 177 gallons (670 L) of wine — wine per batch x 3 vintages), you’re looking at an added cost of $8.47 per gallon ($2.23 per L) for the privilege of aging your wine in a $1,500 new French oak barrel. No wonder so many winemakers balk at that kind of spend and throw their hands up, sticking to oak-free styles like Sauvignon Blanc. Especially for small-batch winemakers (because yes, 25 cases is a LOT of wine!) barrel alternatives, what I like to call non-coopered oak, can be a lifeline. Oak chips, cubes, segments, and even small “staves” (which look like a wooden yardstick) can all be used to creative effect in smaller batches. Luckily, the quality and availability of different toasts and blends has increased astronomically in the last ten years
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Response by Alison Crowe.