Keeping Barrels Clean And Green

Here at Kendall-Jackson we’re proud of our artisan winemaking approach. From the vineyards to the bottle, we take great care in everything we do, and that includes keeping our barrels in the best shape possible. We invest a lot in our oak, so we want to keep it in the best shape possible, which involves keeping them clean.  With all those barrels, the washing process can use a lot of water.

I don’t want to dispel the romantic notion of a musty barrel cave, filled to the ceiling with the finest oak aging gracefully until the wine is perfected ahead of bottling — because that is still true. But there’s another part of the barrel process that doesn’t often get talked about.

The truth is, in order to make sure those barrels continue to be the perfect vessel for our wines, we’ve got to keep them clean.  Now, I don’t mean the outside – our cellars are very clean so that’s not a problem.  The issue is all of the lees (grape solids and yeast) that eventually separate from the wine.  It’s the inside of the barrel that we focus on.

Barrels get washed several times in their lifecycle, starting right before they are filled with wine.  When we are making Chardonnay, the wine ferments inside the barrel.  Once the fermentation process is done we draw off the wine, leaving the lees behind.  These get rinsed out, and the wine is placed back in the barrel to age.  This process is called racking.

The next time we rinse the barrels is when we bottle the wine.  The empty barrel is washed and placed in the cellar to keep it cool and moist until the next harvest.

Each time we rinse a barrel it goes through three cycles.  The first two cycles use hot water to dissolve the tartrates and knock out the sediments that settle out of the wine. Tartrates are crystals that occur naturally in the wine that can form on the inside of the barrel during fermentation.  Afterwards, we rinse with cold water to make sure it is completely clean.

In fact, we spend a lot of time washing our barrels. And that process can use up a lot of water, but over the past several years I’ve worked hand-in-hand with our cellar crew to find all the efficiencies possible in the process.

If you think about how many times a barrel is washed throughout the year, it can add up to a lot of water and energy.  We’ve taken several steps to reduce our impact:

  • High efficiency barrel washers.  We’ve installed low-flow, high-pressure washers that use ½ the water of a normal barrel washer by increasing the pressure.  This helps use save nearly 2 million gallons of water a year.   The higher pressure helps rinse out tartrates and sediment. Think about how a high-pressure kitchen spray handle at home makes it easier to rinse off dirty dishes.
  • Solar hot water.  Since we use a lot of hot water we are installing solar cogeneration systems to heat our water using the sun’s power.  In fact, in a few months Kendall-Jackson will be the largest user of cogeneration in the country.
  • The barrel washing water is mostly full of juice and sugars left over from the winemaking process, so it is still pretty clean.  We treat the wastewater on-site in our ponds, and then once it is clean, we use it for irrigation.  This way we can use our water twice, reducing the amount of water we need.
  • Next year we are going to test out some new barrel washers that use a combination of steam and a vacuum to clean.  We’re hoping that it will use half as much water and energy as our current equipment, which would be 25% of what we used to use.

It’s important for us to make sure that we use our water as carefully as we can, and conserve every drop.  Until then, cheers.