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What’s the best way to store an empty barrel?

What’s the best way to store an empty barrel?
Steam and ozone with Jeremy.Photo by Squire Fridell

inated after a barrel-spinning session. Formerly, we would simply repeat the process again and again until the hard crystals were removed. That worked pretty well, but the volume of hot and cold water that we had to use was prohibitive.

The solution? We now use a steam cleaner specifically designed to remove the caked-on hard matter from the barrel walls. It takes less than five minutes and only one gallon of precious water to soften those hard crystals, which can then be easily washed away with a small amount of water. And the added bonus? Steam, at 220 degrees, will kill most everything!

We were doubtful of steam’s effectiveness until we saw a demonstration where steam was used on a previously cleaned red wine barrel. After a five-minute steam-cleaning session, when the barrel was flipped over, the water that drained out was no longer crystal clear. What flowed from the upside-down barrel was bright red! Amazing! No more tartrates! So, we bought a steam cleaner (Suzy’s anniversary gift).

After steam cleaning, we use an ozone machine that’s hooked up to water at one end and a barrel spinner on the working end. The machine converts ordinary water (H2O) into ozonated water (O3), which we spray into the barrel. Ozone doesn’t “clean” but it “sterilizes,” so after a two minute application, the barrel is sanitized. The marvelous thing is that the ozonated water very rapidly reverts back to H2O (Suzy’s Valentine’s Day gift).

Over time, we’ve stored empty barrels a lot of different ways. More than three decades ago, when we first began making wine, the common practice was to hang a suspended burning sulfur stick inside a cleaned and tightly bunged barrel. The burning sulfur smoke worked pretty well in eliminating spoilage bacteria but also created a “burnt match” smell.

Then we started using sulfur dioxide gas, but that was a very dangerous irritant and we had to wear gas masks during the application and afterward.

The latest solution is to mix potassium metabisulfite (a common food preservative) with tartaric acid (50g each) in five gallons of water, pour it in the newly cleaned barrel, and then swish it around so every part of the inside of the barrel is coated. After tightly bunging the barrel for four months, we drain, repeat the cleaning process, and add newly mixed 5-gallon solution. We have found this to be the best method yet for preserving our clean and sterile empty barrels.

We usually buy seven to nine new barrels a year, so if I don’t anticipate making more wine the following year, seven to nine barrels will be retired. But we can do lots of things with the staves, heads, and hoops! We’ve made fences, planters, tables, lazy Susans, and even had a pal make a skateboard out of barrel staves! Many wineries sell used barrels to home winemakers or places that refurbish barrels, but we give our used barrels to our wine club members if they want them. A wine barrel with “GlenLyon” stamped on the head looks pretty cool in your wine cellar.

A suggestion: If you are a home winemaker, be cautious about buying someone else’s used barrel for your wine. Since the barrel will probably have some kind of sulfur inside, you can’t really pull out the stopper and smell inside to see if it smells “fresh.” Many a sound wine has been ruined by putting good wine into a questionable barrel. (Don’t ask me how I know this …) That’s it for this afternoon! Time to make some dinner and time for a glass of fine Glen-Lyon wine! Tonight, a 2021 stainless-fermented Blush ’O the Boar rosé (matured and micro-oxygenated in neutral barrels) that we just bottled. I’ll serve it chilled, and maybe we’ll drop in an ice cube or two. Then maybe we’ll drift into a glass of red wine (depending on our meal selection).

Keep those questions coming in! Next month’s article? I haven’t decided yet … In September, we will definitely be into harvest #36, so perhaps …?

Non mediatio hic est! (“This ain’t no dress rehearsal!”) Squire Fridell is the winemaker, vineyard manager, CEO, CFO, COO, EIEIO, WINO, and janitor at GlenLyon Vineyards & Winery and Two Amigos Wines. To reach him, email [email protected]