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July 21, 2013

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In bygone days, when a wine barrel was past its prime, it usually ended up being cut in half and sitting in someone’s yard as a planter. Now those barrels can be restored using a technology known as Phoenix, developed by Diverse Barrel Solutions, an Australian company.

Founder and president of the California company Winesecrets, Eric Dahlberg was looking at various ways to restore wine barrels and was considering using high powered sonic technology. He called New Zealand-based Vintech Pacific, which told him about Phoenix Barrel.

Intrigued, Dahlberg set up a meeting with Nick Wickham, the principal of Diverse Barrel Solutions, in Adelaide, Australia. “I liked the sound of the technology and the company itself,” relates Dahlberg. “Just before Christmas of 2011 I went down to Australia to watch the Phoenix machine work.

Upon seeing the system work and what it did, I knew my customers would be compelled by it. The company had handed out restored barrels (which had been previously used for Shiraz) during the summer of 2011. In early 2012 I went around to the wineries that had received the barrels and tasted some of the wines being made in them. I knew right away that this technology was a winner.”

The feedback from winemakers was unanimous: the Phoenix barrel was everything promised. With the restored barrel, winemakers found a flavour profile that seemed more developed than new oak and at the same time, it retained new barrel characteristics not seen in neutral wood. Dahlberg knew there would be a high demand for a restored barrel. In 2012, Bob Rebuschatis was appointed VP of Business Development for Phoenix Barrels, and a Phoenix system was installed at the Winesecrets facility in Sebastopol, California.

“We immediately put it into service because the bumper year in California combined with two years of short crops and short barrel budgets had created a scarcity of quality used barrels, especially for white wine,” explains Dahlberg. “One thing that is very special about Phoenix Barrel restoration is you can take a barrel previously used for red wine and use it for white wine. There is no other method out there that does that.”

The newly-cut barrel is toasted using infrared technology. This guarantees an “ultra-consistent” toasting process, with no variation or blistering of the wood.

Two things happen when you put wine into a new barrel. Flavours come out of the wood as, simultaneously, the wine soaks into the wood. Unfortunately, once a barrel has been used for a time, the flavour no longer comes out of the wood and the barrel is good for decoration only.

Then there is the cost factor. A new French Oak barrel costs around $1,100. Once that barrel is past its prime wineries can sell it as a planter, or, with this system, get it restored for $450. On average, the cost to restore a barrel is a little over one-third the cost of buying a new one.

“Each barrel can only be restored one time,” says Dahlberg. “You are removing six to eight millimeters of wood. You can only do it once because if you remove any more wood from the inside of the barrel it will lose structural integrity.”

Even with that limitation, what the Phoenix process does for the industry is double the life span of a barrel. Whether a barrel is used once, twice, or three times in the aging process, with the Phoenix process vintners will have the use of the barrel twice as long.

When the barrel arrives at the facility the heads are knocked out. Then the barrel hull is placed into a robotic mill where an arm on the robot goes down into the barrel with a laser scanner on it. It then creates a digital image of the inside of the barrel. That information is used by a robot with a high-speed router tool to resurface the inside the barrel.

Afterward, new heads of seasoned French or American oak are put on the reconditioned barrels.

“We put about 300 barrels into service in 2012,” says Dahlberg, “and many of the customers who tried those barrels then are back for more with the 2013 harvest almost upon us.”

Dahlberg will be at the 14th Annual Enology & Viticulture Conference on July 15 and 16 at the Penticton Trade and Convention Centre.

To watch the video go to www.winesecrets.com and click on Phoenix Barrel Solutions.

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July 21, 2013

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