Why You’ll Be Seeing Wine Aged in Bourbon Barrels Everywhere
One winery may double production of its bourbon barrel-aged Zinfandel.
Winemaking and beer-making used to feel like distinctly different disciplines. But recently, more and more, fermenters of both grapes and grains have been taking tips from each other—whether its dry-hopped wine, beer brewed with grape skins, or any of the many other beer and wine hybrids. Now, it appears like a trend that took the beer world by storm is about to be the next big thing in wine: bourbon barrel-aging.
The well-known California winery Fetzer Vineyards first released its bourbon barrel-aged Zinfandel called 1000 Stories back in 2014. The brand’s winemaking director Bob Blue told The Drinks Business that the first year, they only produced 5,000 cases, but over the past 12-month period, they’ve sold 120,000. “It has changed my life,” he said. “We are now buying a lot of Zin, and going to Lodi, Paso Robles, and Mendocino for grapes; the growth has been dramatic, we’ve gone from nothing to 2,000 tonnes of fruit, it’s crazy.” He said if demand keeps up, production of 1000 Stories, which spends two months in used bourbon casks, could double again to around 250,000 cases in the near future.
"It’s a bit of a gimmick, but there’s no question it’s a popular trend right now," Food & Wine executive wine editor Ray Isle says. "Largely it capitalizes on the huge boom in popularity that’s happened with Bourbon, and brings it over into the wine space. Whether aging in a used Bourbon barrel actually makes a wine better in any way is another question."
Interestingly enough, though Blue claims that Fetzer was the first to make bourbon barrel-aged wine in California’s modern wine era, three or four decades ago, using bourbon barrels was relatively common—in part because they were cheaper. “I distinctly remember in the early ‘80s, when I was getting started as a winemaker, that getting French oak for wine was a big deal,” Blue told VinePair this past December. “Since there wasn’t a ton of capital, we used bourbon barrels.”
This time around though, big wineries—which also includes Robert Mondavi and Apothic—are doing it because it’s the hip thing to do, and some wines like Stave & Steel are building their whole brand around it. In the beer world, bourbon barrel-aging has become a staple of many breweries repertoire after Goose Island saw huge success with the technique in the ‘90s. “Riding on the coattails of bourbon’s success, we saw a great opportunity to combine our traditional California winemaking with the unique aging process that comes from used bourbon barrels to offer consumers a bolder, richer [wine],” Jason Dodge, senior director of winemaking for Robert Mondavi Private Selection, told VinePair. As recent beer-wine hybrids have proven, what’s good for the Goose can also be good for the gander.