You need a license to drive a car. Permits for hunting and fishing are required. In general if it’s dangerous you need to prove you’re competent to get a permit. Perhaps winemakers should have to get a permit before they're allowed to use new oak barrels.
Admittedly new oak barrels are not dangerous to people, but they can be very dangerous to wine. Today's wines rarely taste of basic mistakes in the cellar. Cultured yeasts, enzymes and cutting edge machines that can take out almost anything have seen to that. But the neutral ripe black-fruited wines produced by these techniques are, to say the least, boring. So new oak flavors sing a siren's song that few winemakers can resist. If new barrels are not an option, no problem. There are inner-staves, chips, powders and many other products made out of oak to bring those flavors to your wine.
There’s the problem isn’t it? The whole idea of “bringing flavors” to a wine should be controversial. After all, wine critics look down their nose at Retsina, spiced wines or any wine that has something added to alter its flavors. Yet when it come to new oak, they’re suckered in with an almost religious fever that anoints these oak flavored wines with big points.
The concept of terroir is dear to wine lovers around the world. Yet can you think of a bigger enemy of terroir than the pronounced flavors of new oak? If you mostly taste the oak, you are not tasting the wine.
That is not to say these flavors can’t have their place. Certainly cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties can be lifted to new heights with the judicious use of new oak. However, there are so few varieties and appellations that use or benefit by the use of new oak that perhaps more winemakers should step back and reconsider its use. Just because new oak flavors are associated with the two of the most famous wine regions should not be in itself a reason for a winemaker to equate those flavors with quality. The worldwide success of cabernet sauvignon and the exalted status of Bordeaux, and now the Napa Valley, has established the taste of new oak itself, instead of the flavors of the land and variety, as the goal to be coveted by many winemakers and sought out by consumers.
This, of course, is much more a New World than an Old World problem. Most of the other European regions that flirted with new oak in the 80s and 90s have backed off and returned to their more traditional methods. It was sad to see some Italian producers destroy the character of classic, individualistic wines in Piemonte and Toscana during this era. Fortunately, almost all of those producers have either severely reduced their use of new oak or abandoned it all together and returned to making wines true to their regions and varieties. As it turns out, it's good business to be different in the world of wine instead of tasting like you could come from anywhere. In fact, now Barolo has almost become the new "Burgundy" with rare single crus, high prices and allocated wines.
Then there are “oak products” like inner-staves, chips and powders that are added to a wine simply to add that oak flavor. These producers are doing the same thing ancient winemakers did when they created wines like Retsina. The pine flavors covered up other faults, which is exactly the reason “oak products” are used in winemaking today. The most important purpose of a wine barrel is to allow controlled amounts of oxygen to interact with the wine, not to add flavor to it. Obviously these oak products don't have anything to do with the amount of oxygen the wine is exposed to as they only add flavor. They create the modern version of Retsina.
There is using new oak as part of your basic manipulation winemaking recipe, or there is using new barrels like a great chef uses herbs and spices. A soupçon here and there brings a dish to life, too much and you become TGIF. Wine with too much oak makes me think of pizza. On one end of the spectrum you have Pizza Napoletana with its thin, crisp crust graced by light touches of the finest ingredients. Then you have Chicago deep dish pizza where a single slice has more gooey cheese than two, maybe three, whole pizzas in Naples. In Italy one person can eat a whole pie, while two slices of Chicago deep dish is a gut buster. I grew up loving Chicago style, but once I tasted pizza in Italy I could never go back. This is the choice a winemaker has with new oak. What kind of pizza do you want to make?
The use of new barrels is very much a decision that should be made by variety and region. For example, here in the Applegate Valley it has become very clear to me that new oak barrels are just not a good idea. The wines here are too graceful and refined with naturally silky tannins and layering new wood flavors and tannins on top of them buries the character that makes this place a special wine growing region. There are more regions like this in the world of wine than there are those like Bordeaux and Napa.
Like most fashions, even the use of new oak in winemaking has reached its logical extreme. For some, even 100% new barrels was not enough and now there are wines with 200% new oak. How is that possible? Simple, after its first year in a new barrel you transfer a wine into yet another brand new barrel for another year or more. The resulting wine is, of course, 100% devoid of terroir and 400% more expensive. Such is the new math of wine.
While we won't be issuing new barrel permits to new winemakers, perhaps we could at least consider learner's permits? No new oak barrels for five years? Certainly learning how to make good wines without the crutch of new oak, from either barrels or oak products, would make for better, more thoughtful winemakers.
In the meantime, it's in my interest that winemakers retain their addiction to new oak. Every year I can buy beautiful French Oak barrels thoughtfully broken in for me by other winemakers. I can buy these one, two, three and four year old barrels at a tiny fraction of what they cost new and then have the pleasure of using them for years to come.
Come to think of it forget the permits idea, I hope they keep using them.