Rod Byers: A day in the barrel room |

Rod Byers: A day in the barrel room

Rod Byers
Mark Foster from Nevada City Winery oversees 400 barrels there, and while that may seem small by industry standards, it's big by Nevada County standards.
Photo by Rod Byers

In a winemaker’s calendar, harvest and crush are the big, red letter events that attract all the attention. While autumn is when juice is converted to alcohol, it is winter and spring when it’s shaped into wine.

The polar opposite of the frenetic physical pace of crush, winter in the barrel room is more cerebral, artful, and chilly.

After fermentation in the fall, the wine is put in large vats to settle. By November the wine is ready to be racked into smaller oak barrels for aging. As spring emerges and the weather warms, all signaled by the vines outside starting to grow, it’s time for the next phase.

I talked with three local winemakers to discover what exactly is going on in the barrel room this time of year. I visited with Mark Foster from Nevada City Winery, Jackson Starr of Sierra Starr and Mark Henry of Montoliva.

Wine strategy

There is a well-worn cliché, “great wine makes itself” but that isn’t really true. Great wine is the result of many little choices, and some big ones, made by the winemaker. Even a winemaker with a minimalist strategy cannot make great wine without putting in the effort.

Mark Foster oversees 400 barrels at Nevada City Winery. While that might be considered small by industry standards, it’s big by Nevada County standards.

“It is an immense job keeping up with barrel care, including evaporation,” Foster said. “We top the barrels once a month. It takes a day for the 2016s and another for the ’17s, taking up between 120 and 240 gallons of wine each time.”

It also provides the opportunity for him to monitor every barrel, keeping a close eye on exactly what he’s got.

“Wines start to change once they go in the barrel,” Jackson Starr said. “They lose their youthful yeastiness and start to develop varietal character.”

Starr tracks his wines by tasting each barrel at least once a month.

Winemakers learn to identify what’s missing in a wine. Sometimes it’s acidity, sometimes it’s body, sometimes it’s aromatics. Then they look around their barrel room for the missing pieces. Starr explained he is always tinkering in his head with blending plans, looking for which barrels might make complimentary combinations.

The blending process

All three prefer to wait as long as possible before making any blending decisions. Mark Henry at Montoliva makes several wines that he knows will become blends but still waits as long as possible.

“I like to wait until the wine has decided what it is going to be,” Henry said, “to let the character of the wine develop.”

Foster agrees, letting each wine develop separately before blending.

He has spent the last two months working through his 2016 reds, planning the blends in preparation for an August bottling. He typically spends two weeks blending a single wine.

“You may hit the blend early, but you still make 20 more making certain there is nothing better,” he said.

Interestingly, Starr is shortening the time his reds spend in barrel, now about 14 months. Starr thinks wine, especially Zinfandel, starts to lose fruitiness with too much barrel time. He describes it as, “losing its fastball. Losing its zip.”

Henry prefers to leave his reds a full two years in barrel. Henry does post-fermentation maceration which means leaving the wine on the skins for several weeks after fermentation has finished.

“The extended soaking ultimately gives the wine more structure and a softer mouthfeel, but it also means they take longer to develop,” Henry said.

Every drop counts

Blending is more complex than simply making the best wine you can. It’s also a numbers game. When you are done with all the blending, whether it’s five percent Petite Sirah into Zinfandel, 20 percent Merlot into Cab or a 50/50 Sangio/Aglianico blend, you don’t want anything left over.

You have to use it all, while making the right amount of each, for a selling season that won’t happen for two more years.

Therein lies the winemaker’s hidden super power. Taking all those pieces, turning them into individually unique, delicious wines. That is what’s going on now in the barrel room.

I am always impressed, when I get around these guys, to see how articulate, experienced, and motivated they are to perfect their craft, to make increasingly better wines, and to extend Nevada County’s vinicultural path.

I started thinking, wouldn’t it be great to put these winemakers in front of a larger audience than just me. I realized I was in a unique position to maybe do just that.

I work with the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce on Nevada City Uncorked, a sip-and-stroll wine and food event that takes place in Nevada City every August. What if I hooked up a panel discussion in the barrel room at Nevada City Winery, with three of Nevada County’s best winemakers, as part of Nevada City Uncorked?

Perhaps it’s the wine geek in me, but I thought, who wouldn’t want to hear that?

So, I did.

Now I get that this is not everybody’s cup of tea so I won’t bore you with details. But if you are interested in an unscripted winemaker conversation in a unique barrel room setting, check it out on the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce website or click on

I can’t be the only wine geek out there, am I?

Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. You can find information about him at and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.

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