Monthly Archives: January 2015

Topping Off A Wine Barrel

Little more than a handful of years ago, if you would have asked me what topping off is, I’d simply say it’s adding a little extra fuel in tank. Well, that’s not far off when considering topping off a wine barrel.

We may have talked about the fact in the past, but basically an oak wine barrel is somewhat porous, allowing wine to breath. However, that loss or evaporation creates a void in the wine barrel called headspace or ullage as the French call it, which lies between the top of the wine and the top of the barrel where the bung hole is. Note, when not empty, a wine barrel lays long way on a wine rack with the bung sitting on top and a bung-stopper plugged in.

Evaporation & racking

The evaporated wine is called the ‘angel’s share’ and is common in winemaking. You don’t want that gap as it could cause oxygenation, which isn’t good for wine. So wine is added to top off the barrel. The wine used can be literally anything the winemaker chooses, but usually is a similar type of wine or varietal that might compliment the barreled wine. For instance. If you had Zinfandel in the barrel, because Zin can sometimes lack depth or structure, a Petite Syrah is added when topping off.

Topping off might occur a little more often at the beginning when the wine it still fermenting, but after primary fermentation, a wine is at rest and just waiting for it to age, so topping off might occur less often.


Racking wine

Also, wine has to be racked ever so often to get the wine off the sediment, which is commonly called lees. Racking is moving the wine from the vessel to another barrel temporarily so the barrel can be cleaned. I’ll probably talk about racking at another time, but in short, this cleans up the wine a bit so the wine can gain quality. This process obviously removes volume from the wine barrel, and in-turn a large headspace is present and needs topped off.

The original varietal will keep its character and the loss and topping off isn’t sufficient enough to truly affect the wine. It might be added here that this time of topping off is often a good time for the winemaker to check on and even taste the wine. Sometimes a winery will make this an opportunity of wine evaporation to have a barrel-tasting with friends, family or customers.

Controlling angel’s share

Over the course of say two years in the barrel, a wine might lose four to six gallons. Some wineries will try to use temperature and humidification system to limit this process of lost wine to angel’s share. These more controlled environments will allow the wine to lose less alcohol and more water, which consequently will bring the alcohol percentage up. This allows for less meddling with the wine, which some winemakers prefer.

You may have noticed some wineries use caves to store their barrels of wine, and this method controls the aging process and keeps the evaporation down. Regardless, the process of checking the wine, checking the headspace and topping it off occurs anywhere from every week or two, to sometimes quarterly. This is based on the winemaker along with the storage conditions.

Barrel tasting has to be part of the ‘work’ in winemaking.

All of this action around the wine barrel is why the area around the bung is red, compared the to the rest of the barrel. That’s fine and even gives a barrel character for us used barrel folks.

So the next time you have a chance to visit a winery and barrel-taste, do so and maybe you’ll even catch them topping off the wine. Any excuse, right?

Sources: Venture Vineyards, Wine Making: The Ultimate Guide to Making Wine at Home


Daryle W. Hier



Concrete Wine Barrels

The first time most folks hear that someone is using concrete containers for making wine, they cringe. Bleh! Who wants their wine to convey a chalky cement taste? Doesn’t white oak impart the characteristics a winemaker wants and/or needs with their grapes to bring out the best in a vintage? Actually, no, not all wines and not all vintners want an oak flavor or aroma in the wine.

Oak wine barrels may have to make room for egg-shaped concrete wine barrels .

Not new

That’s where concrete comes in. Concrete wine barrels – which have a little mix of clay in them – have been around for a couple centuries, at one time aiding the wine industry as a vessel of choice. It should be noted the first wine containers were Amphoras, which were essentially made of ceramic (and clay) – not wood. Europe is where concrete first started, mainly in France.

With concrete, the keyword you will find over and over is mouthfeel. Steel doesn’t impart much of anything other than a harshness along with not allowing the wine to breath – complexities in the wine can get lost. Concrete breathes like oak, however, unlike oak, concrete allows for a truer taste or mouthfeel. Also, the terms ‘fresh’ and ‘clean’ are used when describing the affect concrete has on wine. Concrete storage vessels were used in the past but eventually were replaced by steel. It is apparent a reversal is in the works.

Moves naturally

The latest evolution of the concrete vat is the egg shape. The shape was found to allow the wine to move around and not get stuck in edges like a wooden or steel cask. Without going into specifics, an egg has a slight temperature degree difference between the top and bottom and this creates a natural circulation.

White wine appears to benefit more from the science of an egg-shaped concrete container. The thicker walls of the concrete method give an easier and cooler fermentation process. Again, this offers a better mouthfeel.

Moving is an issue

The reason concrete hasn’t taken off, other than the fact the world of winemaking is slow to change, is due to the cost of these big and heavy concrete vessels. Also, the shear weight and odd contours for moving make these vats a challenge to handle. Special forklifts are needed to move the heavy containers around. In addition to the difficulties with concrete is cleaning. When something is found to work in cleaning the insides, it can also degrade the surface. By the way, at the end of aging, a lot of winemakers will transfer the wine from the concrete barrels into oak for a brief time.

Another problem with these concrete eggs is costs. Relatively speaking, although the investment is not much more than an oak barrel, shipping a concrete vessel isn’t cheap. The main manufacturer (Nomblot) is from Burgundy, France, which has made the freight situation expensive. New makers of these vessels are starting to pop up including in the United States and that should reduce shipping costs.

It will be interesting to see if this trends continues and more winemakers shelve oak or steel for concrete. Like our motto says, “What’s old is new again”, could apply to the concrete wine barrel. Concrete – Who knew?

Additional sources: Wine Spectator


Daryle W. Hier





Losing Paso Robles Water?

We’ve opined on these pages before about water problems plaguing Paso Robles including drought and who has the rights to the water in the first place. Now, the region may be losing their rights to a huge ground water reservoir in the North County to eastern academics 3,000 miles away.


Harvard’s Widener Library

Harvard University, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, endowment arm has been quietly buying up land and the rights to water pumped from that ground for investment purposes. This isn’t the first time we heard about this, but it appears the Ivy League school has not lost steam in purchasing giant parcels and grabbing hold of the water pumped from said properties.

Harvard Management Company buying up the Central Coast 

Roughly a year ago, reports surfaced Harvard Management Company was acquiring real estate on California’s Central Coast. Whether it was the stories about drought and how Paso Robles had this huge natural underground aquifer or perhaps the fact the region was crowned the world number one wine region, regardless, land was being gobbled up throughout the area. From Santa Barbara, to San Luis Obispo and Monterey Counties, mostly rural properties were being bought on a steady basis, on behalf of Harvard – though all entities involved, would not corroborate the information.

And from all indications, none of these acquisitions were great farming deals, meaning, there had to be an alternative reason for the purchases. Betting on the potentially liquid gold underneath the surface had to be the only logical reasoning behind these procurements.


The wine industry is in a boon of sorts in Paso Robles, and certainly the city is by most accounts, a company town in that viticulture has a hold on the region. There is little influence in the region by the behemoth population centers of Greater L.A. and the Bay Area. The region is somewhat protected by the huge expanse of farming land to the north and mountains to the south. With vineyards and to a lesser degree, orchards, planted on a lot of the existing farmland, the area is filtered and isolated from big city expansion and manipulation.

However, there’s no stopping someone from coming in and paying top dollar for land, so they can be in command of the water down below. Those in favor of a water district for Paso Robles, are indirectly helping outside investments, which brings with it the concern of powers-to-be outside the cities purview may gain control of the water below.

Harvard Memorial Hall - Wikipedia

The halls of Harvard academia might be trying to influence farmland 3,000 miles away on Central Coast of California.

School’s admitted strategy

Last spring, the Harvard Crimson, the schools daily newspaper, reported that investments from the Harvard’s endowment portfolio were being made through a company called Brodiaea, for the expressed strategy of investing:

“in natural resources by purchasing millions of dollars’ worth of vineyard land in central California,”

The investments then in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties were $61 million while acquiring about 10,000 acres, though again, no comments were forth coming, yet it was generally thought that the move was a “water play”. That’s hearsay and probably not compelling enough. Then consider this: Harvard’s own business school did case study in 2009 on water and farming resources in California.

Ground recharge has been a problem here in Paso Robles with some shallow wells drying up in small subdivisions as well as farms. The three-year drought has been to blame, but the fact is, there is still a sea of water below called the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. Created by the Salinas River, it’s one of the largest natural aquifers in the country. Purportedly to save what water remained, San Luis Obispo County took away the rights of landowners so they could stop all new water wells from being drilled. This means for now, only those who have existing well and vines, can continue to water their crops. Those lands are what the secretive Harvard endowment is buying up.

“In vino veritas”

There may not be a lot of ‘truth’ coming from Harvard regarding investments in the vineyards – and water – of Paso Robles.

This brings us back to who is becoming the regions largest landowner and grape-grower: Harvard Management Company. There’s still no word from Brodiaea, who is handling the acquisitions and management of this farming land.

The weather has been inconsistent so far this season with a much wetter than normal end of fall, but a more typical drought-like situation during the first month of winter. We should see rain coming back into the picture next week and forecast claim the rest of winter should be wet. Whether that has any bearing on Harvard’s investments or not; many will likely be watching. Nonetheless, how outside influences such as these affect Paso Robles or not, could hinge on both the climate of weather and business … and how much water is in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.

There’s a famous Latin phrase that many here in the world of wine are familiar with that says: ‘In vino veritas’ (in wine there is truth). Harvard’s motto is ‘veritas’ meaning truth. Will Paso Robles lose their water? It remains to be seen how much truth comes out of these circumstances.

Additional sources: Mercator Research


Daryle W. Hier



Worlds Oldest Barreled Wine – What Is Old, Is New Again

In search of older used barrels that have outlived their life, it’s not uncommon to see some vintners hold their wine in barrels for up to a decade … or more. Most of the barrels we receive at Paso Wine Barrels are six to eight years of age. Wine might be stored in a barrel for that long or possibly two or even three vintages could have been processed through a particular wine barrel. However, there’s one wine that is a bit older than that – say about five plus centuries older.

Hospices de Strasbourg

Hospices de Strasbourg

Cave des Hospices de Strasbourg

Near the border of France and Germany on the Rhine River in the Alsace region, at the center of the European Union in Strasbourg, France, is the oldest wine known to exist in a barrel. It is a cellared 1472 vintage white wine stored at the Hospices de Strasbourg. The reason I bring this story up is the fact the wine has been transferred from a nearly 300 year old barrel into a new one because the ancient barrel was starting to leak. For the record, the wine was transferred one other time, in 1718.

The cool damp caves of the Hospice hold giant wine barrels that to this day produce high caliber white wines. Renovated roughly 20 years ago, the Hospice (also known as a hospital) has cared for the wine, in its caves, throughout its history. This particular 1472 vintage is topped off a few times a year – because wine evaporates (called the ‘angel’s share’) – but otherwise has survived the test of time. These very old caves under the Hospice were built in 1395. Yes, it goes back to medieval times. Interesting side note, people back in the day, would pay for medical aid by bringing wine or even vines to the hospital.

Still fine after all these years

The acidic wine has been tasted only a few times through history with last being when eastern France was liberated from Germany in 1944. A typical light white wine with 9.4% alcohol and golden amber hue, it is said to still have a fine bouquet. When tested in 1994, it was stated the wine had aromas of:

“vanilla, honey, beeswax, camphor, fine spices, hazelnut and fruit liqueur …”

This is the almost 300 year old wine barrel that housed the oldest barreled wine before being replaced recently.

Personally, it’s hard to believe a wine can be aged that long and have anything left that resembles wine, let alone still offering a good aroma. One of my friends in the wine business, who has a bit of a stubborn streak, continues to hold on to dozens and dozens of old barreled wine here in Paso Robles that’s going on two decades of aging. So maybe 543 year old wine from 1472 is possible. Yet, what about oxidation?

Regardless, this extremely old egg-shaped barreled Alsatian wine exists in Strasbourg. Built by experts from the famous Radoux cooperage in Cognac, the new approximately 120 gallon container will continue preserving the legendary wine safely until – When? I don’t know. Maybe when we have the next World War … ?

Additional sources: Michelin Green Guide Alsace Lorraine Champagne, Hospices de Strasbourg


Daryle W. Hier




What Is Bouquet?

For those of you who may not understand all the terminology in the wine world, ever once in a while, we have these quick little info shorts on nuances like bouquet. And no, we’re not talking about flowers.

Smelling the bouquet of wine

In its simplest form, when talking about wine, the bouquet is basically the smell or scent of a wine. However, the serious wine connoisseur would describe the scent of older wines as bouquet, while younger wines have an aroma. Also, since this older more developed wine’s bouquet is even considered, that would mean it is likely a very good wine.

We at Paso Wine Barrels admit that we’re not the greatest tasters of wine although yours truly thinks his nose is a good one. Yeah, insert joke here.

Anyway, since human beings garner a vast majority of their taste through smell with use of the olfactory bulb, the bouquet of a wine can be interesting … and important. It’s not an exact science, but someday, try swirling a glass of wine and then tipping your nose into the glass and think about what you smell. The aroma or bouquet might jump out at you – at the very least you can have fun trying.

Now wipe your nose off – you look silly.


Daryle W. Hier



Gang-Related Shooting A Cold Reminder

I don’t want to alarm anyone and the fact remains that Paso Robles – for the most part – is somewhat isolated by what goes on in the big cities a couple hundred miles away. However, the truth is, we do have crime on the Central Coast. And in case folks think we’re just a sleepy little town, we had a gang-related shooting. Yes, even in the cold of winter, the idyllic town of Paso in wine country has a little nastiness of big city life pop up here on an occasion.


I’m one of the first to expound on living in bucolic Paso Robles as just about life in paradise. Having lived a majority of my life in the Los Angeles area, I know of what I speak. On one hand, it’s not naive to think we can have a quiet life in charming Paso Robles. Heck, you can go almost anywhere in San Luis Obispo County and find the finer pleasures of a great and relatively calm lifestyle. Yet, it’s inconceivable to believe crime doesn’t live amongst the rolling countryside of North County.

Monsters to the north and south

We like to mention often how we sit in a much less populated region between two giant metropolises: Los Angeles and San Francisco. However, that’s part of the problem. Less than four hours south lies roughly 20 million people in the Greater L.A. area and just over three hours north is the Bay Area and nearly 10 million congregate there. Obviously, there will be some influence even though we have large expanses between these two behemoths.

With urban monsters like these comes crime and gangs, which is part-and-parcel to what could be happening here on the Central Coast. The Golden State has a natural rivalry between Southern and Northern California. In sports, there’s nothing as big as the antagonistic battle between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants. Nevertheless, a lesser known but more violent rivalry is between gangs from these two regions. This isn’t Westside Story.

West Side Story

In the south, Southerners or Surenos, have a stronghold in Los Angeles and actually can now be found throughout the nation. They are essentially tied to the Mexico mob and the mafioso-type organizations there. Still, when they try to move north though, they run into the Northerners or Nortenos. Yeah, I know, not very original.

The Nortenos are based in more rural towns and otherwise were formed in the Salinas area (some say Folsom, near Sacramento) but are spread out through the northern half of the state and into the Pacific Northwest. The two gangs are run from the prisons of California and have a deep-seated hatred for the other.

Who controls what?

The dividing line for these gangs has been noted as Bakersfield in the southern San Joaquin Valley, but since the coastal area of Central California (i.e. San Luis Obispo County) is sparsely populated, the lines blur and are potentially an area of concern though the North County is considered Surenos influenced. Note Monterey County is controlled by Northerners and the two counties butt-up just 10 miles away from Paso Robles.

Having said all this, the crime reports here in Paso Robles can be laughable. There are certain days that go by with basically no crimes reported. Yet, that wasn’t the case on a cool early Tuesday morning that otherwise was a quiet and very nice part of southeastern Paso Robles. Gunfire erupted on Sycamore Canyon Road (source: KSBY).

The police say it’s gang-related and while there were multiple shots fired by the assailant, luckily no one was shot – there were some cars damaged. It’s not known if this is a turf war or not, so my elongated description above may or may not be applicable. Still, gangs are a problem and this instance reminds us that we as a city need to be attentive to any perceived escalation.


Gangs such as Chivas are common in the Greater L.A. region.


I remember reading an article a few years back and it noted how a solid majority of Paso Robles officials felt there wasn’t a gang problem in the town. That was shortly after a drive-by shooting that summer with county sheriffs talking about dramatic increases overall in crime. During that same period, a huge brawl in a bar in San Miguel – a small town just north of Paso – was caused by drugs and gangs. Purportedly law enforcement is in control and the city does an excellent job of fighting graffiti, while keeping distance between the gangs and the citizenry. Ah, but let’s face it, this isn’t L.A.

I owned a classic car restoration business in Norwalk and for a time, the city was known as having more gangs members per capita than anywhere else in the country. The gangs around our shop were rivals with the notorious Chivas’ who were always a worry. It was a war zone. Don’t believe me? Look it up – here’s just one of many stories written about the infamous area (L.A. Times). From personal experience, during the middle of a work week, I heard a big bang and went out to the edge of the street to see what was going on. I guess God had something else in mind because a bullet whizzed by head, just missing me. That’s life in the big city. That’s not Paso Robles.

Paso Robles AVA

Regardless, Paso is a fast-growing town and likely will become the largest in the county within the next couple decades. With growth comes growing pains and certainly gangs will be sniffing around with shootings like the one yesterday popping up every once in awhile. This will continue to remind us we must be vigilant.

Okay, that’s it. No more to see here. Don’t want to be a Debbie Downer – just living life realistically with my eyes wide open. Now back to your regularly scheduled glass of wine, as most of us wait for winter to be done with.

Additional sources: Barrio Gangs: Street Life and Identity in Southern CaliforniaThe Detective’s Guide: California Prisons, Prison Gangs, and Parolees


Daryle W. Hier




Wine, Barrels, Insurance, Autoparts, Daryle And Bill Foley

Bill Foley and I have a lot in common

I’ve known Bill Foley for quite awhile – not personally, but did talk to him and his people in another lifetime ago regarding marketing his food empire. Also, I know of him through my connections with the automotive world because he also owns a giant manufacturer of auto parts (Remy, formerly Delco-Remy). He is the man behind billion-dollar companies including Fidelity National Financial (which includes the largest title insurance company in the U.S.) and with the help of those finances, Foley’s personal wealth rose substantially. In-turn, he’s been focused on vino, which once again caught my attention when he bought several wineries over the last handful of years.

William P. Foley II

William P. Foley II

His full name is William P Foley II and the billionaire-to-be’s wine empire is becoming extensive. The mogul didn’t start off in the wine business doing very well but recently, has caught on and is now a powerful player in the world of wines.

New wine mogul

Bill Foley essentially started buying wineries in Santa Barbara and worked his way up the coast. He now owns wineries all over the world and amongst others here on the Central Coast of California, he purchased Firestone Vineyards. Foley also bought EOS, which had been a favorite of our family for many years. They moved the location of EOS to a new facility at Firestone down 46 East nearer to Paso Robles. Our connection to EOS goes back to when the Arciero Brothers owned it. The racing relationship combined with a great park-like setting and formidable winery hooked us. Now Broken Earth owns the grounds with former Indy racecar owner Gerald Forsythe at the helm. By the way, Bill missed out on this incredible location and facility.

In any case, Foley’s viticultural business holdings (Foley Family Wines) have blossomed this past decade. His style is to acquire undervalued properties that have underperformed, struggled or are just plain in bankruptcy. He tries to be vertically integrated meaning he wants all levels under his control, from the vineyard, to the wine-making facilities and distributor (he owns a wholesaler/importer); plus, he can also sell the wines to his other restaurant holdings. I could go on about his business acumen, but to say the least, Bill Foley is doing well for himself in his relatively new venture.

Roth Estate Winery

Stunning tasting room

An interesting item that really caught my attention was Foley’s latest tasting room off of Chalk Hill Road near Healdsburg in Sonoma County (Russian River Valley). The Roth Estate Winery combines a portion of the barrel storage facility with the tasting room, bringing a modern look, using wood as its primary focus. The experience should be worth the tasting fee of $15.

Now we at Paso Wine Barrels certainly are partial and accustom to wine barrels as a unique and bold appearance for any room. Envious of anything to do with barrels, this take is quite stunning. The floor is done in white oak, which of course is what every wine barrel is made of. Oh, and magnificently standing in the tasting room is a large table made of a fallen 400 year old tree. In a nutshell, it’s striking and very handsome. This new part of the VIP tasting room opens in the spring of 2015 and should be everyone’s list of must sees.

Roth Estate winery - table

VIP Tasting room at Roth Estate Winery

It all ties in

Except for the fact I buy insurance, otherwise Mr. Foley and I have much in common. As far as automotive is concerned, I spent the first two decades of my working life heavily involved in auto parts industry. I was in negotiations with Remy at one time for a sponsorship. Since he bought my favorite winery at the time, EOS, in which I knew the former and current owners (who were racecar owners), it’s kind of a relationship by symbiosis. My partner and father Ron, has been associated with the racing world almost all his life. Hey, and let’s face it, wine barrels, and therefore wine go hand-in-hand. Finally, wine barrels are our middle name and he owns a lot of them and did wonders with his barrel storage area turned into tasting room. See how that perfectly ties in? 😉

In any case, I’d advise keeping tabs on Mr. William P Foley II. His trend is always up and this wine thing of his is only getting bigger … and better. Plus, he has a lot in common with me.


Daryle W. Hier