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American Oak May Be On Its Way Out

Various reports and editorials lately have mused at the backlash against over-oaked wines, particularly Chardonnay. While I had no doubt that this was the case, and was even thankful for it, the real proof of the decline is what's happening to the American Oak market: it's collapsing. Or nearly. Oeneo corporation, one of the largest of America's handful of manufacturers of oak barrels has had to sell its American oak cooperage facility at a loss, after losing nearly 2 million dollars in the last couple of years.

In addition to the reduction in demand for American Oak barrels, which impart stronger wood flavors than their French counterparts, the American Oak market has been under increasing competitive pressure from the French who are now even setting up American companies to distribute their wares.

While this state of affairs undoubtedly means hard times for some people, which you never wish for, I can't say I'm particularly bummed out by the trend which it seems to signal. Very few winemakers know how to use American oak well, and for the rest, it ends up churning out wines that often have the "buttered plank" taste that so many people unknowingly tolerate and even love.

There will not be much mourning here. Here's the news story about Oeneo.

I know there are winemakers who read this site. What do you think?

Comments (13)

Tony Quila wrote:
01.24.05 at 3:52 AM

I agree that it is a sad day for the employees of Oeneo corporation. But it is a welcome moment for discerning palates everywhere. One less trick in the winemakers repertoire to disguise mediocre overpriced efforts.

the caveman wrote:
01.24.05 at 5:29 AM

And not a minute too soon. I have pretty well given up on California as a whole largely due to their penchant for over-oaking their wines. Now the next step is understanding micro-climate, let's go a little less ripe folks.

Lenn wrote:
01.24.05 at 8:06 AM

I can't say that I'm shocked...but it is a shame for the American barrel makers.

I've become increasingly enamoured with Hungarian oak lately...and Russian oak...there's one winemaker I know personally that uses them.

Of course I know another winemaker that thinks the first one is just using them as a marketing ploy to "stand out"

Thoughts, Alder?

wine on a budget wrote:
01.24.05 at 9:06 AM

I'm a bit of a newcomer to wines and am on quite a budget - so I have to choose carefully when trying new things. I've found I really quite dislike the very oaky/buttery side to many chardonnays. Rather than try pot luck as to whether I find one that is to my taste I now tend to choose the unoaked varieties instead - a very different, much more fruity drink. So hopefully this new trend will see me broadening my horizons a little!

Al wrote:
01.24.05 at 9:39 AM

Overall, I don't think that this is good news.

American Oak is a good tool for winemakers. The backlash in the marketplace seems to be due to 2 main reasons:
- Many winemakers seem to 'overdo' it when applying American Oak [AO], and
- too many winemakers use too high a percentage of new oak in their wines.

Because AO has much more available flavor compounds than French Oak [FO]or oak from Eastern European countries [EEO], it needs to be utilized in a more refined manner, not just tossed in 'en masse'...
(BTW - AO has much more 'cis-lactones' available than FO by about 4 times, while EEO has about 2.5 times the FO level; EEO and FO both contain more oak tannis than AO by ~2:1. In addition EEO resembles AO in that the wood contains more tyloses (wood sugars)that help plug some off the vessels in the wood.)

It's not that AO is the great offender. American wineries trying to get some attention from a market in which 80%+ of the wine sold is Chardonnay; the Chard market segment is ~900+ different products (with ~15% less than US$12); the Chardonnay reign has been over the last 25 years, and has been "THE" wine marketed to consumers for white wines.
This has winemakers thinking they need something "impressive", "different", and "over the top" to get consumers talking about their wines. The result?
So many Chardonnays which are "over oaked" or "super buttery". Why?...because while winemakers may not be able to afford grapes from better vineyards, they can change their barrel %'s rather easily - skewing to higher %'s of new wood and toasts that give the big "bang"...not just 'medium toast' but 'heavy toast', and 'light' and 'heavy char' toasts. That's when AO gets it's bad rap, because the wine's essentially being but into barrels with the same toasting method as whiskey barrels, just like it was 30 years ago when the American coopers were first trying to get a handle on toasting barrels for wine. The same coarse effect that was reviled then, is being applied again in an attempt to make a "different" wine. THAT's the problem as I see it, not necessarily the difference between AO, FO, and EEO's.

Historical note: EEO (specifically Hungarian Oak) was THE oak of choice in the French wine industry prior to WWI.

BTW - the worst over-oaked wine I ever had was a 2000(?) Windsor Vineyards Zinfandel which was in 100% NEW AO according to the back label...it was like drinking liquid wood. Totally out of balance, and totally unenjoyable. I think Carol Shelton (who made the wine) should've been given a 'razzie' award for that one. Even though I hated the wine, it was the maker I despised - not the AO itself.

Deena wrote:
01.24.05 at 9:59 AM

Back before started learning about wine I knew I hated Chardonnay but liked Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, though I couldn't put my finger on why. Today, of course, I know what the problem was.

Still, there are some great uses for American oak barrels out there. I had a nice Rioja Crianza the other day, and they traditionally use American oak.

I hope this trend doesn't mean winemakers will avoid American oak even when it would be the best tool for the job.

HugeJ wrote:
01.24.05 at 12:43 PM


Where do you get 80% for Chardonnay? I assume you're joking, as Chardonnay is only ~30% of the market by volume. Also, the Chardonnay offerings are about 50% over $12 and 50% under $12....


Alder wrote:
01.24.05 at 12:58 PM


As Al mentions, Hungarian oak has been incredibly popular in Europe for some time. A lot of Tuscan wines are fermented and aged in either Hungarian or Slavonian oak. Some winemakers are also using French Barriques, but many "old school" winemakers from Montalcino and Montelpulciano only use the Eastern European oak.

Al wrote:
01.24.05 at 1:32 PM

I should have said "80%+ of white wines" sold are Chards (that number was from a seminar on Chardonnay a few years ago at UC davis. It may or may not still be that accurate, but I think the gist of my point remains.).
By and far the greatest offender of over oaked wines has come from winemakers trying to "out do" each other in a wierd wine world version of an "arms race" using Chardonnay.
"More new oak, MORE, MORE!" seems to be all they can say...
European winemakers eyes just roll when they see how much new oak we use in the US! In our defense I guess I could argue that there's more intensity in the California fruit to balance oak against, but it's still over-abused far too much...

They're the ones to be held responsible for it's overuse.

And 50% of Chards on the market are US$12 or less?
I wish you'd give that info to the retailers around here! Do you know if that's by sales volume or by individual labels (just curious)?
(Again, that 15% is the number I had in my notes from a few years ago. And judging how there's a serious surplus now compared to then, I guess I'm not really surprised to see that number jump up that high. Thanks for the update.)

HugeJ wrote:
01.24.05 at 2:39 PM

The 50/50 is by label only (imports not included), so I would say that, based on volumes, the vast majority of Chardonny is under $12. Also, those numbers are based on wholesale prices, not the final discounted retail price so the final split is probably even more skewed toward sub-$12...

I can't imagine there was ever a time when only 15% was below $12, unless you considered KJ above $12 somehow.

As for oak, I agree that its use will decline (a good thing for prices too!) and other alternatives will probably replace it. I wrote a post on micro-ox a while ago....



thecaveman wrote:
01.24.05 at 6:02 PM

I figured most of the cheapo wines were made with woodchips anyway, so i doubt if the price would be effected, though I am talking out of my hat a bit on this one. Suffice to say that the 'trend' in the world of winemaking is moving away from the supercharged extraction, the super woody, the massive power fruit bomb. Elegance and balance is the word in France and despite their drop in sales, they still kinda do it best.
It's fun to watch you guys argue about percentages and stuff, though.


antonio wrote:
01.25.05 at 8:04 AM

American wine producers will continue to over-oak their wines for the mass market until a majority of Americans begin to realize what serious wine drinkers (including everyone that reads this blog) already understands -- that wine is meant to be an accompaniment and complement to food. Most Americans still drink wine as a cocktail and it that case, oakiness, when paired with a pretzel or peanut, is not such an offense. The wine consumption cultures of the great wine producing countries of the world are the oppsoite of America's -- the wines are built to work with food and therefore over usage of oak ruins this relationship. Unfortunately, many producers around the world are making wines to appeal to the U.S. market ($$$) -- and losing the characterisitcs that made their wines sought after in the first place.

Al wrote:
01.25.05 at 10:27 AM

Antonio I agree to some extent, but wouldn't mind pairing a nice oaked Cali Chard with some fresh Salmon Affumicado off the grill; a slightly oaky Cab with a planked London broil; or a nicely oaked Syrah with leg of lamb cooked on a Weber using old oak barrel staves as fuel. I'm not looking for these types of wines for everyday use, but they pair well in some situations.

The market drives what wineries produce to a great degree, though some over extracted/ over oaked wines will still exist while the pendulum of consumer tastes swings to the other side.

I also agree with your comment "that wine is meant to be an accompaniment and complement to food", though I still hold out that wine should/could be enjoyed by itself. I see your point that US wines as a whole are not made with food pairing in mind, and I think there's still alot of work to be done in changing America's wine image. Our US culture is based far too much on our puritanical founding father's views.

Hell, there used to be doctors in France who essentially prescribed different wines for different maladies. I don't know that people were cured, but they probably felt better!

HugeJ - I don't know how they arrived at that value, it was in 2002, but I do have it in my notes from then. Oh well...maybe some dyslexia on my part?

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