When Roger Burson and Pedro Meza were working together at Meridian Vineyards, they were in opposite ends of the business.
Burson was in finance and operations, and Meza was the barrel and warehouse manager. But their fates took a common turn when they were assigned the job of closing down a Meridian warehouse and getting rid of the 20,000 wine barrels in inventory.
“In the process, we thought, ‘Gee, all these barrels being cut up for planters,’ ” Burson recalled. “We thought, ‘What a shame.’ ”
So the old adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” kicked in, and five years ago they started a business to recycle used barrels. Quality Barrels, in Santa Maria, is now providing “rejuvenated” barrels to wineries at a fraction of the cost of comparable new French oak barrels. The partners are also creating a new division to turn some of those same barrels into fine, custom-crafted furniture. And some, sadly, still get cut up into planters for sale around the country.
They have several techniques to refurbish a barrel so it can be used for wine storage again. They can shave a mere 16th of an inch off the interior to expose new wood, they can steam-clean them, they can cryoclean them using blasts of dry ice, or they can use ultrasonic waves. There are even new oak inserts that can be used.
The financial appeal to wineries is significant. Quality’s refurbished barrels sell anywhere from $150 to $350.
“So you’re looking at $1,100 for new French oak, versus a couple hundred dollars for a cleaned barrel,” Burson explained. “And the rejuvenation process brings it up to, maybe, a 1-year-old barrel.”
But not all winemakers embrace the concept. Although Quality is selling thousands of barrels a year to about 250 wineries, both big and small in California, there are some wineries that won’t buy a used barrel.
“Some winemakers are very leery,” Burson said. “There’s a little bit of risk, and you’re not going to get the oak extraction of a new French oak barrel.” But Burson also noted that new French oak can “hit the wine a little hard at first,” and many winemakers prefer a barrel that has been used six months or more.
It’s also a solution for wineries that realize at the last minute that they’re short on barrels after a big harvest.
“We do the barrels ahead of time, and we stage the barrels so when harvest rolls around, we have barrels ready to go,” Burson said.
The furniture side of their business happened almost by accident. When Meza hired a laid-off construction worker for the warehouse, the finish carpenter started “tinkering around on his own” with parts of unused barrels. The result is a collection of beautiful hand-crafted chairs, tables and accessories.
“The furniture is really different than the wine barrels,” Burson said. “It’s like we have two businesses.” They sell the furniture through local dealers and even sold 1,000 tables for an in-store Samuel Adams beer display. It’s been their largest furniture sale to date, but they’re hoping to expand soon with a new website.
As for the future, Burson and Meza see their barrel recycling as becoming more and more needed and accepted.
“Wine consumption worldwide is just growing and growing, so supply and demand is going to drive up the cost of barrels,” Burson said. “We need to extend the life of the barrels we have.”
Whether you’re in North County or further south, there’s a special wine event near you this weekend.
In Paso Robles, the annual Hospice du Rhone celebrates Rhone varieties from around the world at the Paso Robles Event Center. The major tasting event featuring more than 130 wineries from six countries will be Saturday. Go to www.hospicedurhone.org for more information.
In San Luis Obispo, the annual Roll Out the Barrels Weekend will be through Sunday, with more than 20 participating wineries from the San Luis Obispo region. The weekend includes a two-day Passport to Wine Country for Saturday and Sunday. For more information go to www.slowine.com.
Janis Switzer can be reached at 434-5394 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.