Okanagan Barrel Works, the only cooperage in the Okanagan Valley, but the paved road takes only a minute longer. Cal Craik runs the shop with a crew of four. Two of them are French, working their way through a complex work-study system called Les Compagnons du Devoir. They train bakers and stone masons, pastry chefs and barrel-makers, among their many trades and crafts. Eric Fourthon found his way here three years ago, and his replacement has already arrived. Together, the crew turns out something like a thousand barrels a year, some traditional (225-liter) Bordeaux-style, some larger vats.
Were this France, the parking lot would be filled with oak staves, neatly latticed to allow several seasons of air-drying before they are assembled. But Craik says it's easier (and no more expensive) to purchase staves, whether from France or from the American midwest, that have already been hewn (or cambered, or "joined," as they say) so that they are the right length and have the proper angle of bevelling to fit together properly. The key, says Craik, is in the toasting, which chars the wood and determines how the oak flavors will influence the wine. An American oak barrel sells for $425 (Canadian), but a French barrel (whose wood has a different cell structure) goes for $950. Is the difference worth it? That's up to the customer.
Like all the folks in the wine industry here, Okanagan Barrel Works has an office dog. This one's a frisky Weimaraner named Monsieur. Seems appropriate for Bastille Day, non?