Rick DeFerrari aims a heat gun at the barrel, then adds more hunks of oak to the crackling fire that is, slowly, toasting the inside of the wine barrel.
DeFerrari, who owns Oregon Barrel Works in McMinnville, is a master cooper, which means he builds oak barrels for aging wine and whiskey.
On Saturday, he demonstrated the process from start to finish in the courtyard at Crossroads Carnegie Art Center.
DeFerrari’s visit to Baker City, along with Andrew Beckham from Beckham Estate Vineyards in Sherwood, was part of a day-long event titled “Barrel and Vessel: The Art of Aging Wine.”
DeFerrari came for the barrel part of the day. Beckham makes amphora, an ancient technique of creating large vessels out of terra cotta clay for aging wine.
The workshops were made possible through a partnership with Oregon Folklife Network, the National Endowment for the Arts and Oregon Cultural Trust.
“The point is to learn and understand these amazing folk traditions,” said Ginger Savage, executive director of Crossroads. “Our goal every year is to bring some culture keepers out (to Baker City).”
The making of a cooper
DeFerrari has a degree in forestry from Oregon State University. He grew up next to a winery, where he worked during winters when he was home from a job in Alaska.
He didn’t exactly pursue the idea of becoming a cooper.
But then DeFerrari took a trip to Europe, planning to visit and relax in France, Italy and Greece.
He ended up working in France for a year and a half to learn the art of barrel making.
“I never made it to Greece,” he said.
He’s crafted barrels for about 20 years. He and his crew of four make barrels for both wine and whiskey, mainly using oak harvested in the Willamette Valley. He imports some French oak, as well.
“Oregon oak has a different flavor profile than French oak,” he said.
DeFerrari starts with straight staves. Metal hoops go around one end, leaving the other ends splayed out.
To create the barrel shape, he builds a fire inside the barrel and, as the wood heats, slowly tightens a cable to bend the staves.
The fire has a dual purpose. First, it helps make the oak pliable. Second, it toasts the inside of the barrel.
He said toast levels for wine barrels are light, medium, medium-plus, and heavy. Use of these vary by winemakers and the type of wine.
“What works for one winemaker doesn’t work for another,” he said.
Barrels for whiskey go beyond those levels to “char.”
“We actually catch the inside of the barrel on fire,” he said.
When liquid is added, the staves swell to create a water-tight barrel.
Oregon Barrel Works ships to customers in the Pacific Northwest and Kentucky, as well as New Zealand and Australia. A big tank made of Douglas-fir, which doesn’t impart taste to liquid, was shipped to a distillery in Tasmania.
A barrel can be used for five years before it goes neutral, meaning it no longer imparts the oak taste to the liquid stored inside.
“It gives up 50% of its flavor in the first year,” DeFerrari said.
Bourbon must be stored in 100% new oak charred barrels.
DeFerrari’s oak barrels sell for $800 to $950. French oak barrels range from $1,000 to $1,200. He said 60% of the cost is the raw wood.
At his shop, his crew can make up to 16 barrels in a day, but it is a four-day process from start to finish.
When asked if learning the cooper trade appeals to the younger generation, DeFerrari nods — but then hesitates.
“At the end of the day, it is a hot, dusty, dirty job,” he said. “It’s dangerous work.”
Traditionally, it took 10 to 12 years to be considered a master cooper.
On Saturday afternoon, the demonstrations moved inside Crossroads where Andrew Beckham shared his approach to aging wine.
He earned a double major in history and ceramics from Lewis and Clark College. While a student there, he was inspired by a demonstration of a Japanese potter who made large pottery vessels.
He later earned his teaching license, and teaches high school ceramics.
But it is his hobby that brought him to Baker City.
Beckham makes amphora — large terra cotta vessels for aging wine.
He progressively increased the size of these vessels and has devised new techniques along the way.
“We’re hoping to have a pot next year that is just under 2,000 pounds,” he said.
That size can hold 250 gallons of wine.
It’s taken trial and error to hone his craft.
These pots are massive. His largest was 60 inches across with walls of 1 ﬁ inches. One can take up to three weeks to create, then dries for several months.
Firing the vessels has been a challenge.
“The first 12 we made cracked,” he said. “I was about to quit, honestly.”
Then a contact who has a PhD in ceramic engineering helped develop sensors inside the kiln. The problem was a major temperature difference between the inside and outside of the pot during the firing process.
“As they were cooling down, they were ripping to pieces,” Beckham said.
Now it takes about 36 hours to fire a pot, from start to finish.
He not only makes amphora — he uses the vessels to age wine made from grapes he grows on his property in Sherwood.
He uses oak barrels as well. At a special event Saturday night at Copper Belt Winery, Beckham offered tastes of his wine to compare the two techniques for aging wine.
“The fruit was harvested on the exact same day, but the taste is completely different,” he said.
And unlike the five-year life of barrels, amphora can be used forever.
“The terra cotta vessels get better with each use,” he said. “Wines aged in terra cotta have a remarkable varietal purity.”