Many winemakers, new and old, prefer oak barrels for aging and storage. There is an air of “this is how it’s always been done” that makes it hard to accept any other alternative. However, with an oak barrel shortage now persisting for three years, many winemakers have embraced the modernity of stainless steel wine barrels rather than pay through the nose for used oak.
So, where have all the barrels gone?
Economically, one could cite the combined collapse of one the housing industry and the explosion of another: adult beverages. After the housing bubble burst in 2007-2008, the demand for lumber decreased dramatically and many loggers were forced to leave the field. Several years later, the global consumption and production of wine, beer and barrel-aged spirits such as bourbon has boomed, leaving loggers struggling to keep up.
Environmentally, the story is a little more complicated and devastating. A state-side epidemic of Sudden Oak Death, an aptly named forest disease, has killed millions of oaks and wiped out several oak tree species since the mid-1990s. Couple in bad, wet winters and you have a recipe for scarcity.
In the wake of the shortage, the price of both new and used oak barrels has either doubled or worse, depending on the size. Small to midsized wineries and distilleries struggle to accurately predict and fulfill their need for barrels, let alone afford them. Even some larger operations with private cooperages have felt the impact of the shortage.
While smaller and more experimental winemakers have taken advantage of the flexibility, durability and eco-friendly benefits of stainless steel wine barrels for years, the dearth of oak barrels has pushed them into the spotlight.