With a number of winemakers using oak barrel alternatives such as stainless steel wine barrels, concrete tanks and plastic alternatives consistently on the rise, it is safe to say that the oak wine barrel, once the industry standard, is no more. There are many motivations for winemakers to choose an oak alternative like Skolnik’s stainless steel wine barrels: Oak diseases have made the resource rarer and more expensive, oak barrels are less sustainable, difficult to clean or reuse, oak imparts a taste on wine that is not always desired, and so on and so forth. But, since winemaking is as much of a business as it is an art-form, let’s focus on the financial.
The long and short of it is: Oak barrels are less cost effective than stainless steel. The cost of an oak barrel varies depending on the availability of, well, oak. Oak barrels have a limited lifespan and need to be replaced more often which means you are purchasing them more often. And unless you are only producing top-shelf, expensive wines and have a constant customer base that consistently purchases all of your pricey bottles at full price — using exclusively oak barrels is just not a practical business model.
So when are stainless steel wine barrels or other oak alternatives the smart, most cost effective choice for your production line? Corey Beck of the Francis Coppola Winery and Sonoma County Vintners says the sweet spot is for wines that retail for under $20.
At this bottle price point, an oak barrel is an unnecessary expense and you see cost savings from topping losses. In a 225-liter oak barrel, winemakers lose an average of 500ml of product to evaporation during the summer months. If you age your wines in stainless steel wine barrels, you avoid this loss. You also avoid the extra costs of water usage (from barrel cleaning), propane (from the forklifts required to move oak barrels) and the energy it takes to cool an oak barrel.
In the end, you have created more of a competitively priced wine product while using less time, money and costly resources. Not to mention that oak alternatives such as chips and staves are growing in quality and availability.
So, if you have been toying with the idea of switching to a stainless steel barrel fermentation process, now you know which of your wines to start with to get the best bang for your buck!