When I first spotted the A & K Cooperage booth on the trade show floor at the Midwest Wine Conference, I thought it was a rest area for the conference goers. Somewhere to lean over a barrel and have a chat. But Matt Kirby caught my eye and it was soon pretty clear this was another interesting topic for a blog.
This year it’s forty years since Matt’s father and grandfather started their Midwest barrel making operation located in Higbee, Missouri. Today, the family employs about ten people and usually assembles between 4 to 5000 oak barrels per year. Much of construction is done by hand. “Our standard barrel is a 60 gallon American oak barrel,” says Matt. At $330 per barrel this local option for aging wine is a lot cheaper than importing French or other European oak barrels. French oak can cost about $1000 a barrel by the time you’ve organized transport to the US. There are other reasons for going local. When I was in Spain a few years ago, a farmer I knew from Merida, in the region of Extremadura (a Spanish region not renowned for its wines – a bit like the Midwest in some ways) said he wanted to grow vines on his farm and age the wine in French oak, but because French oak was in such high demand, he was faced with a wait of at least several years for a barrel. Here’s an article in Wines & Vines that compares the costs in recent years of French, European and American Oak.
According to Matt there’s another good reason for choosing an American barrel over a European one and it allows me to bring back, with a vengeance, the topic of the Norton grape. That’s because Matt makes wine as well – mainly sweeter varieties but also the Norton. They don’t grow the grapes but bring them in and use their barrels to age them. A & K Cooperage say they’re the only cooperage and bonded winery on the same grounds in the United States. With his Norton Matt says, “I try to really cut the acid out of it and make it smooth. I think you really need to give it a lot of time in the barrel. I think a Missouri Norton really needs American oak to help tame it down. It helps smooth it out a lot.” And it needs at least two years in the barrel, he says.
At the moment, most of A & K Cooperage’s barrels get sold outside Missouri. One winery in California, Silver Oak Cellars, buys half of what they make each year, or about 2500 barrels. But in the last 6 years or so, along with and because of the sprouting of dozens of new wineries in the Midwest, their business has been growing in Missouri and they now sell up to 200 barrels locally. At the Midwest Wine Conference Matt said he’d sold about 30 more.
“I think it’s just really good to push your local products that are growing right there in your own grounds.” He says. “I think that’s a big part of our industry – push local.”
But as the industry grows creating both opportunities and the prospect of more competition, one big issue for Matt’s barrel company is finding the funds to do marketing and choosing how exactly to do it via social media, TV, radio or print: “that’s the most expensive part of the game right now,” he says. A timely reminder – see below!
The author, Danny, is an Australian gun for hire who’s just moved to the Midwest from Spain via San Francisco. Apart from being a wine lover, he’s a former BBC News reporter and a history documentary maker. If you need videos for your website to tell the unique stories about you and your winery, its people and history, highlighting your quality wines and awards, please get in touch. Or if your winery’s website or blog is languishing without any content, and needs articles or blog entries, also get in touch. I can also set up your internet social media for you, from websites to Twitter. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 816 863 2496