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A Q & A With Ramiro Herrera, Master Cooper

How does the child of Mexican immigrants with no wine or woodworking background discover a passion for wine barrel making?

I love the word serendipity. Not exactly a vocable that one learns through schooling, more of a Hollywood thing for most of us. Serendipity or perhaps providence is the cornerstone of my calling. I wanted to be a soccer player but I also wanted to eat. At a very tender age I started working at Seguin Moreau, never imagining that a job that I saw as transitory would be transformed into a life calling. There I was surrounded by incredibly gifted woodworkers and tonneliers, the fragrance of the toasting process spoke to my soul. Eager to learn every aspect of barrel-making I would shadow everyone attempting to absorb as much knowledge as possible. My hunger for knowledge and passion for the trade did not go unnoticed. I was quickly granted better opportunities for learning and was eventually sent to Cognac, France where I underwent one of the most stringent apprenticeship programs which refined my skills but also deepened my love for the trade. 

Ramiro Herrera working on log selection and purchasing in France

Tell me more about the way wood and fruit converge to shape the flavor of a wine? 

The barrel is often overlooked if not invisible by wine drinkers but of deep essentiality to the winemaking process. A properly fabricated and appropriately toasted barrel adds flavors like vanilla, coconut, mocha and clove that compliment the fruit-like characteristics. A well selected oak that has been seasoned and toasted with the final product in mind will allow for the slow ingress of oxygen which minimizes tannins resulting in a smoother and creamier wine. The barrel also creates the proper environment for malolactic fermentation in simple terms this fermentation is the process in which malic acid which is naturally present in the juice and has a tart flavor is converted into a smoother softer tastic lactic acid by a process of decarboxylation which basically is the liberation of carbon dioxide. 

Now, one must realize that the flavor that the barrel imparts on the wine starts from the moment the acorn is planted and the conditions such as terroir, rain, altitude, humidity and environmental stressors in which the sapling becomes a tree. Wine barrels are mainly made of french oak mainly from Berce (Jupille) {The king forest }, it is important to note that the varietal known as Quercus petrea is specifically preferred for barrel making because of the finer grain of the wood. It is also far more scarce in comparison to the common french oak (quercus alba) which is quite common across Europe.  

Every year I head to France to attend auctions and secure oak logs with the most desirable characteristics. The wood cures for years in carefully stacked pallets where environmental conditions and exposure to certain microbes is managed to obtain an ad-hoc flavor and wood porosity.  As a Master Cooper I am responsible for every stage of construction from the selection of the tree/log all the way to testing the final product for permeability and final toasting characteristics. Afterall, every single aspect of this process will directly impact the quality of the wine.

I see barrels of multiple sizes, Can you help me understand why?

Absolutely, the size of the barrel impacts how much of the liquid within it is directly exposed to the wood. The smaller the barrel the higher exposure to the flavors of the wood. However, here in Napa we mainly use the barrique or bordelaise barrel which holds approximately 225 liters. However, in the world of wine and spirit making you will likely encounter a variety of sizes from a firkin which holds 40 liters all the way to a tun cask which holds 1000 liters. To give you an idea of volume a barrel full of wine can weigh up to 600 pounds. It is super important to construct the barrel in such a way that it can be moved and repositioned with ease during the fermentation process as master coopers we are attuned to details such as the importance of transportability when shaping each of the barrels we fabricate. 

Are there barrels made of other woods that can be used to ferment wine?

Yes, in the past and presently wine makers and barrel makers have explored other woods such as acacia, hickory, maple, walnut, cherry and even chestnut. What that said, French Oak remains the go-to ad-hoc wood for wine fermentation

Presently you are the exclusive cooper for Caldwell, where do you see yourself ten years from now?

As a barrel artisan that is deeply in love with the craft I always want to learn and be more. In addition to constantly refining my skills I often visualize myself partnering with wine innovators to explore the potential of their wines and customize the toast of their barrels. I would also love the opportunity to develop a barrel-making programme serving Mexican wine makers as well as professionals developing other spirits that benefit from well defined fermentation. 

Tell us a bit more about your role as a consultant when helping a winemaker determine the best approach to barreling their wines?

This is a fun question Javy and it is perhaps the most thrilling part of my job. As a Master Cooper I have had the opportunity to partner with several wine makers. My goal as a barrel maker and consultant is to get to fully know the juice that will age within my vessels and make appropriate recommendations that will maximize the flavor objectives set forth by the winemaker. Often the consultative process includes barrel size selection, toasting strategy and even the aesthetics of the barrels if the partner winery offers cave tours and deems it necessary to have barrels that are visually pleasant and brand-aligned. When it comes to fabricating barrels I am often selected and recommended because of my ability to deliver consistency across multiple barrels, afterall, the goal is to help winemakers create legendary wines that will be consistent year after year. 

Let’s finish with a personal question. Tell us about your passions. Outside your artisanal vocation what is it that makes you smile?

Javy, you may be expecting a really romanticized answer but to be candid with you what I love as much as I love my work is soccer.

QUE VIVAN LOS PUMAS!!!!

As wine touring experts we are always on the lookout for new people and new wines that you must get to know.  We can’t wait to introduce you to our friend Ramiro, we are pretty confident you will love him as much as we do.

With much love,

The Javys

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