When Winemaking ‘Alternatives’ Become a Staple

The wine business is constantly evolving and, for the most part, winemakers are very open to innovation and new products – especially if they make their jobs easier and more cost effective without compromising the quality of the product. It is no surprise when innovative or supplemental products that have proved their worth become a mainstay in the wine industry. And so oak alternatives and stainless steel barrels are now ubiquitous in cellars and wineries across the globe.

Amidst oak shortages and a downturn in the economy, stainless steel barrels, such as those manufactured by Skolnik Industries, cemented their place in the winemaking business as a powerful and cost-effective alternative to the classic oak barrel. Easier to manufacture, clean, sterilize and re-use, stainless steel barrels offered winemakers a level of control over product and budget that oak barrels just couldn’t match. In a time of low resources and tight budgets, integrating stainless steel wine barrels into production was a no-brainer.

Oak alternatives have been used for ages, but their popularity rose in tandem with stainless steel barrels. Winemaker Jay Christianson says that oak alternatives allow him to experiment with more “ripeness” and “less traditional” approaches to winemaking. Even when using traditional oak barrels, oak inserts help give his Bordeaux an extra oaky component. Oak alternative products allow winemakers to make more affordable, oak-driven, stainless steel aged wines and let them polish the oak profiles of wines that didn’t get enough oak from their new oak barrels. Oak spirals and other alternatives empower winemakers with more control and variation in their oak seasoning, tannin structure and other attributes without the cost of a new oak barrel. Oak dust can improve the color of a batch of wine and some winemakers have almost stopped using oak barrels all together.

The BNA Wine Group, for example, sells a California appellation Chardonnay called Butternut which was originally barrel-aged. But the demand for Butternut outpaced BNA’s budget for oak barrels and the winery has relied on the merits of alternatives ever since. Despite the alteration in the production process, Butternut has not decreased in popularity and now BNA can confidently meet their audience’s demand.

It’s true that not all winemakers have abolished the use of traditional oak barrels, but they do universally see the value that stainless steel drums and oak alternatives bring to their operations from a budgetary, efficiency and even artistic perspective. And so, the alternatives confidently become not-so-alternative.