Bastille Day

Seguin Moreau Entrance SignOn July 14th, Bastille Day, members of Women for WineSense, along with their guests, gathered at Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage to celebrate France’s Independence Day and learn a bit about its long history and the barrel’s relationship with wine.

Kicking off the presentation while attendees enjoyed Valley of the Moon’s Sonoma County 2009 Pinot Blanc and crepes was Seguin Moreau’s President, François Peltereau-Villeneuve, discussing the history of barrel-making as well as its current usage.

We were all surprised to hear from him that only 2% of all wine produced globally is aged in barrels. The vast majority of wine produced is aged in other vessels, such as tanks made from concrete or stainless steel (if aged at all). Considering that wooden barrels have been used to store wine for upwards of 2,000 years, from Rome’s years of glory to the present, you might have thought market penetration would be much greater by now!

In point of fact, there was a time when demand for oak was nearly outstripping supply. The ascent of oak barrels for wine storage had its beginnings in the chateaux cellars and for transporting wine on boats. In addition, France’s oak forests were heavily logged for building military ships.

Audience Listening to Seguin Moreau CEOJust imagine: Something round in shape is simply easier to transport when your FedEx truck is driven by a horse with a cart. And if the barrels, heavy as they are, were square in shape, there’d be no moving them by hand either. Knowing what a beating product took in transportation (not unlike today!), barrels designated for transport had thicker staves, to protect them and the product on their journey to the end destination.

This demand, coupled with the fact that French oak trees cannot be harvested until maturity, around 100-150 years old, placed enormous stress upon France’s forests. What if there were no oaks left to make wine barrels? Mon Dieu! And so the French government stepped in to regulate the sustainability of their forests, though originally to ensure a consistent supply of timber for the warships. Now the ONF, or French National Forests Office, administers the sale of the regulated oak wood.

Fast forward a few centuries and the demand for wine barrels dropped dramatically after World War I and during  Prohibition in the U.S. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that demand picked up again. What with good winemaking skills that had dipped precipitously during Prohibition, Americans weren’t aging wine much—in oak, redwood, concrete or anything. The use of oak barrels for fermenting and aging in the United States came hand in hand with the boom of the Napa Valley. It wasn’t until Robert Mondavi advocated a return to Old World winemaking practices in the 1960s that a resurgence in demand began.

Enjoying the bright and refreshing 2008 Spring Mountain Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc with fresh crepes, Seguin Moreau’s leader continued on about modern barrels. Recently developed and introduced to the market, Seguin Moreau’s Fraîcheur barrels are made with acacia wood heads (and French oak staves), imparting unique floral and fresh characteristics. Some winemakers find this ideal for their white wines.

Francois Peltereau-Villeneuve

Francois Peltereau-Villeneuve

Throughout Mr. Peltereau-Villeneuve’s commentary, attendees asked lots of questions about barrel-making and the winemaker’s interaction and training with the barrels. We were surprised to learn that in the U.S. there is almost no schooling on the myriad effects of oak and toasting levels on the wine. And Stephane Vivier, winemaker of our third wine: 2010 Vivier Rosé of Pinot Noir, chimed in to mention that he received but four hours of training about wine and barrels in Dijon, France.

Stephane indicated that winemaking is a life-long learning process, and the winemaker experiments with different barrels, toasting levels and cooperages (they all have different styles) with his (or her!) wine over many vintages to find the right mix of barrels. Eventually winemakers cull down barrel selection to the ones that consistently work for them and the wines’ styles using oak to accentuate the wine and to lift it—but in the background.

Enjoying our first French wine of the evening, St. Louis Chardonnay VDP Comte Tolosan 2009, Chris Hansen, Seguin Moreau’s sales manager, explained it is common for wineries to purchase barrels from a number of different cooperages. This is so that they can mix and match the various cooperages’ wood and toasting styles with their wine for the aging process.

Each vintage is racked into a variety of barrels from new to one-use (one to three years of age) to neutral (18 months or older) from a variety of cooperages. From this mix the winemaker produces the final blend. And, of course, each wine and each vintage is produced from vines under different geologic and climatic conditions – just as the wood from which the barrels are made were grown with different conditions.

Combined with the fact that the atmospheric pressure present at different times of the day will cause the fire (and thus the toasting of the wood) to vary, the cooper has to be very skilled to take this into consideration in order to ensure consistency in toasting wood. 

All cooperages have different standards for toasting. There is no recipe and thus no industry standard as to what makes up light, medium or heavy toast in a barrel. Then there are often different barrel sizes for different varietals. For example, Burgundy barrels (60 gal.) are most often used to age Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and other white wines. Burgundy barrels usually receive Medium Long toasting. Traditionally, Bordeaux barrels (59 gal. – names originated from their corresponding region) are for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other red wines. The result of all these options? About a million or more possibilities in aromas and flavors for the finished wine!

Wrapping up his presentation while guests enjoyed the final, French wine, Chateau La Tarciere Muscadet 2009 Sèvre & Maine, Sur Lie, along with some heavenly sugared lemon crepes, François’s key take-away point was that the greatest barrel, the best wood, cannot make bad grapes into great wine. Without the finest grapes to begin with the barrel cannot transform the wine into superb wine.

As some attendees moved into to another room to watch a video about Seguin Moreau’s forest-harvest-to-barrel-cellar product, others commented how astounded they were “that any consistency can be achieved in the barrel wood and fruit interactions given the number of variations at play in the wood alone!”

Some were surprised to hear barrels came from other countries. Besides France, barrels are made from oak trees in America, Hungry, Russia and other European countries.

One thing was clear as guests wound up their visit: There’s a lot to learn about wine barrels, and some of them will return to Seguin Moreau soak up more knowledge on the nuances of the wine barrel.

About Seguin Moreau

Their main cooperage is in Merpins, in Bordeaux. They also have a cooperage in Burgundy, which was established in 1991 in an old grain cooperative—in the center of the town of Chagny, next to the legendary vineyards of Chassagne-Montrachet. And Women for WineSense attendees visited at the Napa cooperage, which was established in 1994 to serve Californian and U.S. winemakers.

For more information, visit Seguin Moreau’s website or view one of many videos on their barrel-making process on YouTube. Many thanks to Lynae Anderson for her expertise on Seguin Moreau and the art of barrel-making for this article!


Marie Antoinette suggested:”Let them eat cake!” So we will be taking her advice and serving French pan-cakes, also known as crepes, a very light, thin pancake, at our Bastille Day event.

Our event crepe menu includes delectable Crabby Crepes, Spinach, Cheese and Bacon Crepes, Al Fresco Crepes (avocado, tomato, cilantro, more…), and a light Dessert Crepe (sugar & lemon).

To accompany them, we have a lovely assortment of elegant, white wines. But before we get into some background on the wines, here’s a bit of back story on how crepes came to associated with the French:


The word crêpe is French for pancake, from the Latin crispus, meaning crisp. In France, crêpes were originally called galettes crêpes, meaning flat cakes. The French pronunciation of the word is with a short e, as in bed.

Crêpes originated in Brittany, the northwest region of France, where they rarely had fillings and were used as bread. Until about one hundred years ago, all crepes were made of buckwheat flour.

In France, crêpes are traditionally served on Candlemas (La Chandeleur), February 2. This day was originally Virgin Mary’s Blessing Day but became known as “avec Crêpe Day”, referring to the tradition of offering crêpes.

It was also served on Shrove Tuesday to celebrate renewal, family life, and hope for good fortune and happiness ahead. The belief was that if you could catch the crêpe with a frying pan after tossing it in the air with your left hand and holding a gold coin in your right hand, you would become rich that year.

In earlier times, in French rural society, farmers offered crêpes to their landowners as a symbol of allegiance. Crêpes are popular not only throughout France, but elsewhere in Europe, where the pancakes go by other names and adaptations, including Italian crespelle, Hungarian palacsintas, Jewish blintzes, Scandinavian plattars, Russian blini, and Greek kreps.

Today, creperies that specialize in serving sweet and savory crepes are found throughout France. The savory pancakes, served as a main course, are usually made of buckwheat flour and called galettes, or galettes sarrasines, while dessert crêpes are made with wheat flour. Savored for centuries, crêpes are now celebrated beyond France, with creperies in America, and elsewhere in the world.


Until recently, crêpes were cooked on large cast-iron hot plates heated over a wood fire in a fireplace. The hot plates are now gas or electric heated, and the batter is spread with a wooden spreader and flipped with a wooden spatula. It is customary to touch the handle of the frying pan and make a wish while the pancake is turned, holding a coin in the hand.

Turning out a batch of the aromatic butter-browned pancakes is a rewarding endeavor. Assembling them is swift and can often he done ahead. With a stack of these tender discs on hand, you will have myriad serving possibilities for a happy repast any time of day.

Crêpes are ideal to make in advance and refrigerate or freeze, to fill later for a party or informal gathering. They are easy, dramatic, and fun to serve. One option is to stage a kitchen party and let guests spoon on their own fillings.

Crêpes may be made with either plain or sweetened batters. Incorporating different flours into the batter varies the taste. Savory batter can be based on whole-wheat flour or a variety of specialty flours, such as blue cornmeal, buckwheat, garbanzo, or chestnut, all available in bulk in many natural food stores or gourmet markets. Fresh herbs can be used to color and flavor savory crepes. Sweet crepes are enhanced b flavorings such as liqueurs, extracts, or fruit zest.

Crêpes star when it conies to versatility. Their fillings can be complex and sophisticated or as simple as a dollop of herb butter, a dice of chilies, or crumbled sheep or goat cheese. Or, for sweet bitefuls, tuck in some grated bittersweet chocolate or white or dark chocolate chips, spread with am and sprinkle with powdered sugar, or sprinkle with sugar and splash with lemon juice.

Crêpes may be filled and folded in various shapes for a decorative presentation. Ideal to serve around the clock-for morning brunch; an elegant lunch; a midday snack; or a dinner entree, accompaniment, or sweet finale-crêpes are the good cook’s best ally.


Mesdames et Monsieurs, we have got some truly special, elegant white and rosé wines for you at this event! Come taste these unique offerings. You won’t often get this opportunity! Je ne regrette rien!

Spring Mountain Vineyards 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Spring Mtn. AVA)2008 Spring Mountain Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ~ Spring Mountain Vineyard is an 850-acre estate on the eastern slopes of Spring Mountain. Over 225 acres of the estate are planted to vine, representing 135 distinct hillside vineyard blocks with many soil types, exposures, and microclimates.

Originally four individual 19th century Napa Valley vineyards, Miravalle, Alba, Chevalier and La Perla are now one vineyard producing primarily Bordeaux varieties. Because of the challenging and diverse hillsides, a substantial portion of the vineyard is planted in densities of over 4,000 vines per acre to the ancient gobelet form, a vertical training method invented in an earlier millennium by the Romans. The vineyard yields distinctive mountain wines noted for concentration, elegance and longevity.

With only 675 cases produced, this Sauvignon Blanc is a rare treat. Winemaker’s Notes: “The 2008 Sauvignon Blanc has a beautiful straw yellow color with green highlights. The nose is an intense combination of citrus and floral notes mixed with pronounced stony minerality a complex marriage of varietal and specific terroir. The palate is silky and elegant. Clean flavors of lime, grapefruit, white peach, apricot and hints of linden echo the wine’s aromas. Grown in austere, rocky soils, the wine minerality is evocative of a Loire Valley Sancerre, yet its weight and texture is pure Spring Mountain.” (Varietals: Sauvignon Blanc 87%; Semillon 13%) ~ $40.00 ($32.00 Wine Club) Estate Bottled

More on Spring Mountain Vineyard’s Sauvignon Blanc: “Since 1993, our estate grown Sauvignon Blanc has been styled along the lines of a fine white Bordeaux. The grapes are whole cluster pressed and the juice is cold settled overnight. It is then moved to neutral French oak barrels where fermentation is completed. The wine is kept sur-lie for 6 months with weekly stirring. This marries the wine’s bright flavors and acidity with the rich yeasty, toasty elements provided by barrel contact. Batonnage and extended sur lie aging create a texture that weaves layers of fruit and vanilla into a rich and complete wine.”

Vivier 2010 Rose of Pinot Noir2010 Vivier Sonoma Coast Rosé of Pinot Noir ~ Vivier blends the ancient traditions of French winegrowing with the youthfulness and potential of American vineyards. Focusing on Pinot Noir, the husband and wife team of Stéphane and Dana Vivier bring a Burgundian restraint and sensibility to wines made from California and Willamette Valley grapes, and it’s a darn fine combination.

Did you notice the balloon on the label? From their website: “It was late Summer 1906 in the Jardin des Tuileries. Picnickers gathered in the garden and diners filled the neighborhood terraces, eager to watch the launch of this inaugural overseas [balloon] race. What better way to celebrate this airy adventure than with a glass of Rosé.

“Made with a bit of restraint, a classic French style, and bright Sonoma Coast fruit, this Rosé shows floral, grapefruit, raspberry and earth notes and finishes up fresh.

“We sourced the grapes for this Rosé from the high-elevation, hillside Sonoma Coast vineyard we use for the Pinot Noir. The wine was fermented and aged in stainless steel.” ~ $18.00

Valley of the Moon 2009 Sonoma Coast Pinot Blanc2009 Valley of the Moon Sonoma County Pinot Blanc ~ Valley of the Moon Winery has been in operation longer than any other winery in the Glen Ellen area. The stone structures date back to 1863, and have great historical significance.

With aromas of honeysuckle, peach and lychee nut, this Pinot Blanc is the perfect mid-summer refresher. This wine is integrated and rich fruit flavors of pear, apple and nectarine which lead to a lengthy finish balanced with zesty acidity. From their winemaker’s notes: ” This traditional Alsatian-style wine is a blend of grapes from vineyards that are located in the Russian River Valley and the Southern Sonoma Valley. Both viticultural areas have deep alluvial soil and a cool climate due to the moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean and the San Pablo Bay. These cool microclimates are responsible for preserving the crisp acidity and fresh fruit character of the wine. The 2009 Pinot Blanc was whole-cluster pressed into stainless steel tanks and fermented at cool temperatures to preserve the varietal fruit aromas and flavors of the grapes. After fermentation portions of the wine lots were aged in French oak and Acacia wood barrels to enhance richness and provide additional complexity to the wine.” (Varietal Composition: 99% Pinot Blanc 1% Chardonnay) ~ Sale! $12.00

This perfectly balanced Pinot Blanc pairs well with seafood, shellfish (particularly oysters), poultry, salads, fruits, light pastas and mild cheeses. Its structure and fruity flavors also complement spicy cuisine.

Join us at Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage to celebrate France’s Independence Day.

By Leah McNally

July 14th marks the day in 1789 when the French people stormed the infamous Place de la Bastille, overthrowing the symbol of the French Monarchy’s absolute power. It was the defining moment in the birth of the French Republic and in 1880 it was declared a national holiday.

Storming the Bastille

Storming the Bastille

The Bastille has a colorful history of its own.  The fortress was originally built between 1370 and 1383 to defend Paris during the Hundred Years War. After the war ended and for the next 200 years , it served as a castle and as the vault for the royal treasure.  It was in the early 1600’s, under the rule of Louis XIII that the castle was converted to a prison for the wealthy who had committed an offense against the King. Prisoners were held without any rights by order of the monarch under the infamous Lettre de Cachet.

Despite being at the mercy of the King’s whim, records show most of the aristocratic prisoners were well fed, received visitors and were allowed to have their own furnishings and servants. Louis  XIV continued the tradition, but by the era of Louis XV and the 1700’s, the Bastille had lost its luxury status and was known as the symbol of cruelty and the absolute power of the king. It was during this time period that it became famous for inhumane conditions. Prisoners that were released were forbidden to speak of what they saw inside its walls. Ironically by 1798, at the time of the revolutionary siege, it only housed seven prisoners and was being considered for demolition by the monarchy.

The French celebrate this holiday with fireworks and parades.  This year, Women for WineSense celebrates the French contribution to the style of winemaking the world reveres on July 14th at Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage.  Come join us and wish the French, “ bonne fête” on their day of Independence.

In all the many years Barbara Walters has asked the question, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” you’ve got to wonder why none of the celebrities ever answered, “Why a white oak, of course! Then I could live out the rest of my years as a wine barrel, soaking in the heavenly fermenting juices while imparting my unique qualities to the elixir of the gods!”

French white oak may not be the only tree species favored by winemakers to enhance their wines’ unique flavors, but it certainly is one of the most preferred due to its unique characteristics. After all, with the price of a new barrel now topping $1,000, they’d better start with some of the finest wood on the planet!

The finest wines have long been associated with barrel aging to impart the most desirable flavors, from spices, such as cinnamon or clove, to heavier notes like tobacco and cocoa, and even sweeter tastes like vanilla. Wine barrels have been around for well over two thousand years, and even then the Romans were envious of the fabulous wines that came from their Gallic (French) territories.


Why barrels? Let’s see … could it have something to do with ease of transport? They’re rounded, easy to move and stack for storage – particularly at around 140 lbs. empty. That makes getting the product to the end user a lot easier. Due to the stress put on the staves (the 30 or so wooden boards that make up the bulging, cylindrical barrel sides), like the curves in a wooden boat, the container is extremely well-sealed and unlikely to leak or break. Yes, barrels offered many advantages to the marketplace over their predecessors, heavy clay amorphae.

The ancient art of barrel-making has been passed down, in many cases, for generations. A Master Cooper spends many years learning his craft, from stave selection and assembly to the final planing and finish sanding of a completed barrel.


Perhaps surprisingly, according to Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage, only four percent of a tree’s wood actually makes the grade (literally) to become a barrel. Fine cooperage begins with tree selection. And that means the finest oaks grow in the center of France—in such famous forests as Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Trancais and Vosges. In these forests (strictly controlled by the French government for quality and sustainability), trees are carefully chosen for their second act in life as a wine barrel by their shape, height and growing conditions, as well as grain.

Seguin Moreau begins harvesting the trees used in barrels at approximately 100 to 125 years of age, but some aren’t harvested until they’ve reached the ripe age of 200! And given that such a small percentage of the tree makes it to the final round as a barrel, each tree produces only enough wood to make three barrels. (The remainder of the tree’s wood isn’t wasted—part goes to furniture, railroad ties, etc., as well oak chips and loose staves used inside tanks and vats.)

Once harvested, Seguin Moreau’s barrel-bound wood is hand sawn, quartered and stacked in tiers for outdoor “seasoning.” This process of aging the wood for at least two years, ensures the barrels don’t leak later on. During the passage of time, the wood’s aromatics begin to emerge as moisture evaporates, leaving behind favorable sugars and reducing harsh tannins. Eventually, it all gets nicely toasted over a fire. But I’m getting ahead of the story in the plot.


You’ve heard of Haute Cuisine and Haute Couture? (It’s funny how the French always seem to have a corner on the bestfoods and high fashion.) Seguin Moreau epitomizes La Haute Tonnellerie – the best in wine barrel-making – turning in Oscar-worthy performances with each barrel produced. (Tonneau is barrel in French.)

As the show begins, the cooper selects and assembles the staves, ringing the primary (chime) hoop of a new barrel with the chosen boards. This process is known as the “mise en rose” or “raising of the barrel.” Next, additional hoops are added to hold and tighten the staves in place.

In the next scene, the art of fine cooperage truly comes into play as the unfinished barrel is then subjected to heat (fire) and fine sprays of water to make the staves pliable and then to bend into shape. Master coopers carefully inspect the barrel joints to ensure they line up perfectly—no leaks allowed. After the barrel toasts and the ends are crozed, the heads (sealed with river reed between the joints) are inserted.


The toasting (“bousinage” at Seguin Moreau) of a barrel is an art form onto itself. There are more than four separate levels of toasting from light to heavy, each of which brings out the barrel’s own aromatics,and thus influencing the wine’s final flavors.

The art of accurate barrel toasting varies throughout the day due to temperature, climate, humidity and other factors. Thus, use of a simple egg-timer to gauge the amount of toasting would never be possible to produce the best and most consistent quality of toasting from one barrel to the next with so many variables at play (though a cooperage will have clocks that track the toasting time!)


Having prepared all of its life to become the vessel in which delectable wines mature, the new barrel arrives at the winery ready to take the stage. It gets a brief dress rehearsal in which its joints are tested by being filled with water—this allows the wood to swell together, ensuring no wine seeps through the grain. And having been judged worthy to serve its role, the barrel is then filled to capacity (approx. 60 gallons, or 25 cases) through the bung hole.

From time to time, the clear silicone bung is removed by the winemaker to check on aging and to rack the wine. Often a small portion of the wine has disappeared. Known as the Angel’s Share, the small amount of evaporation from the barrel always happens, no matter how tightly it is sealed. Higher temperatures increase water evaporation; higher humidity increases alcohol evaporation.

Perhaps the most important factor in evaporation is the quality of the wood. Tighter, straight wood grains slow evaporation. However, the winemaker doesn’t wish to eliminate evaporation altogether, as it is the oxygen working its way through the wood that imparts the finer qualities to the wine. Very, very tight wood grain would take a very long time to release aromatics and toast into the wine. (3-4 years of aging your Cabernet? No thanks!)

Upon inspection, using a wine thief to withdraw a sample from the barrel, the winemaker has the barrel topped off once again (to ensure the great amount of surface contact of the wine to the wood) and the bung is replaced.

Wineries replace a percentage of their barrels every year. Winemakers often use a blend of wine from both older and new barrels to achieve the flavor and aromatic profiles of their finished product. After two to three uses, a barrel is generally considered to be “neutral” in imparting its own aromatics and flavoring. And after five years, barrels take their final curtain call, retiring to become planters, yard furniture and other creative products for the home, having fulfilled their duty in service to create the finest of wines.

To learn more about the fine art of cooperage, join us on Bastille Day, July 14th, at Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage, for a special presentation with its President and CEO, François Peltereau-Villeneuve. Details on reserving your spot here.

You can also read more about cooperage in this article in the Napa Valley Register. And many thanks to Lynae Anderson for her assistance on this article.