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.