When a new truckload of barrels arrives at his Santa Rosa storage room, woodworker Jonathan Black sizes up each pungent cask and imagines it into something else.

A bistro table or a hanging pot rack? A barrel head serving tray or a lazy Susan?

A carved clock or a wall cabinet?

?I?ve been doing this so long now I can take a barrel, look at that barrel, walk around it and look at all the different staves on the top and the bottom and determine exactly what product that barrel is going to make ? how it is best served,? he claims.

With an unfailing enthusiasm and restless imagination for his medium, the man behind Bella Barrel confesses to sometimes lying awake at night, conjuring up new ways to re-make a wine barrel. It can be as humble as a napkin holder or as extravagant as a lighted wine and liquor cabinet with removable tray top retailing for $2,850.

?I make over 40 different products, but I have a bunch up here I can?t wait to start on,? he says, pointing to his head.

Black is among an increasing number of craftsman, from skilled woodworkers to backyard handymen, who are starting to look at this ubiquitous Wine Country debris as something more than a cheap planter.

In truth, wine barrels are made of the finest old oak. Wineries may pay a cooperage anywhere from several hundred to more than a thousand dollars for a quality barrel. Many are imported from France. And yet after five to seven years, most of the aromatic compounds that add spicy and vanilla nuance to wine have disappeared, rendering them useless to serious winemakers.

?Within a 5-mile circle around Calistoga, 70,000 barrels are being discarded every year. Most of them are being sliced in half and turned into planters,? laments Paul Block of Vintage Furniture Manufacturing in Calistoga.

A graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York, Block brings his aesthetic and engineering skills to the difficult challenge of working with bent wood. Both he and Black have had to customize their own tools and saws. The barrels have to be dried for several months before the wood is ready to work with. But the beauty of the oak, infused with the rich red stains from cabernet and zinfandel or the black char from toasting, make it worth the effort.

?Wine barrel wood comes from some of the oldest trees. The older the tree the better the flavor,? Block explains. ?In order to have a grain density that is suitable for barrel construction, a tree has to be at least 125 years old. Most often the trees are over 200 years. This makes the wood denser than any other oak you can get commercially in any form.?

Sourcing cast-offs from Merryvale and other nearby premium wineries, Block recycles about 1,200 barrels a year into heirloom quality pieces, many proudly retaining the original Cooperage mark. Over the past 12 years, he has come up with 65 to 75 different items, from rocking chairs to wine cabinets to coffee tables, a number of which are carried by gourmet food purveyor Dean & DeLuca.

Wine lovers seem charmed by the whimsy of decorating with the barrels that once contained their favorite vintages. It?s like incorporating a bit of the winery into their world.

?I think they have character. Look at this one. It?s red. You just feel that it has been around,? said Brenda Sanderson of Occidental, admiring the two-sided wood platters and concave bowls displayed in Block?s showroom tucked down an alley off Lincoln Avenue.

Sanderson is so drawn to the venerability of recycled barrels that she has an end table and a coffee table to delight Wine Country guests in her vacation cottage.

Rick Wilson has incorporated Jonathan Black?s wine barrel stools, with their curved legs, into a beautifully appointed barn in Santa Rosa?s Rincon Valley he rents out for weddings and special events.

A fourth-generation woodworker, Black learned to carve from his mother. So some pieces, like the clocks he makes from barrel tops, feature delicate hand-carved faces or numbers.

Whit McLeod of Arcata is the dean of wine barrel furniture-making on the North Coast, his Arts and Crafts pieces featured at places like The Dovetail Gallery in Healdsburg and Sonoma Enoteca on the Sonoma plaza.

A former wildlife biologist who inventoried old-growth Douglas fir, he watched the forest dwindle and mills close. But at the same time, he saw a new wood source emerge from the burgeoning wine industry.

Back in 1990 he salvaged 36 gigantic, 2,500-gallon casks ? each with 10-foot-long staves ? from the old Italian Swiss Colony Winery in Asti. He is still working that wood, crafting it into classic Morris chairs, dining chairs and even wood flooring.

He discovered that wine barrels lent themselves to the Craftsman designs so popular in the early 20th century.

?Oak was their wood of choice and it was quartersawn oak,? he said. ?All of the wine tanks and little wine barrels have to be made of quartersawn oak because it?s more stable.?

Quartersawn boards are logs cuts into quarters, with a series of parallel cuts scored perpendicular to the tree's rings. The relatively consistent grain leaves it more stable and thus prized by woodworkers and furniture-makers. And because the yield is lower, it also is more expensive.

While he steams some pieces to straighten them out, he also enjoys working with the curve, particularly with some items like folding chairs.

?We work the curve to our advantage,? he explains. ?If it were straightened out it wouldn?t be as comfortable.?

Many craftsmen who are dedicated to re-inventing the wine barrel are also drawn to the ?green? aspect of re-using a fine material that otherwise was going to waste.

Even the galvanized metal bands are being incorporated into pieces. Mike Snowden, who sells his work at the Healdsburg Farmers Market, makes shiny orbs from the barrel bands that catch the sun in a garden.

Black also uses every bit of every barrel he acquires. He burns any staves deemed unsuitable as firewood and throws the shavings from his shop onto his compost pile.

?I like to think,? he says, ?I?m extending the life of a barrel another 100 years.?