The Bourbon Barrel Craze Arrives in Wine

Recently in one decadent sitting, I tasted bourbon aged in a Cabernet Sauvignon barrel, and stout beer aged in a bourbon barrel. But the biggest cross-category curiosity was to come: Zinfandel—yes, wine—aged in bourbon barrel.

Beer-Barrels-2It’s been the modus operandi of the craft beer world to run edgy experiments with flavors and aging protocols, and it’s refreshing to see the often conservative wine business finally following suit. I’ve always admired wineries that defy traditions.

But rebellious wine innovation is tricky. Winemakers don’t have the same latitude as brew masters to add flavors, for example, so they stick to experiments like blending different grape varieties, using barrels from countries around the world, or changing up toast levels.

But Fetzer Wines is pushing the experimentation further, and recently launched “1,000 Stories” Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel.

The brand manager for the wine, Rachel Herrig, likens the rich heritage of bourbon with the heritage of Zinfandel in America. Fetzer is betting this combination is an all-American winner that also capitalizes on the bourbon craze.

American whiskey became bourbon in the early 1800s, named after an area of Kentucky called Old Bourbon. The barrels are made from locally sourced American oak, charred to provide a distinctive flavor to the whiskey.

1000-stories-zinfandelZinfandel, no stranger to American oak, can stand up to these carbonized barrels. Fetzer sources the Zinfandel for its new 1,000 Stories from Mendocino County, and makes the wine in three separate, 5,000-case lots.

After a traditional soak in French and American oak barrels, part of the blend enjoys new bourbon barrel treatment, but then the blends all undergo ageing in old bourbon barrels from different distilleries. The lots are referred to as “small batch,” appropriating the vernacular from the craft spirits world.

A taste of 1,000 Stories Batch 2 Zinfandel revealed subtle whiskey flavor surrounded by rich, jam jar black fruit, smokiness, and a hot finish. A swath of vanilla-tinged bourbon follows the sip, something I’m sure the winemakers intended.

To drive demand for their new wine, Fetzer has placed no advertising, instead choosing to hand-sell to key accounts and buyers instead. “People who are interested in craft beverages and bourbon are particularly drawn to 1,000 Stories, so we officially launched this at a bourbon event in Kentucky, as the official wine sponsor,” says Herrig, adding that 1,000 Stories 2013 Zinfandel is on allocation for the remainder of the year.

Given all this bourbon love, is the wine in danger of coming off as gimmicky and offending sophisticated wine drinkers? Apparently that’s not been a problem for Fetzer. Sure, bourbon is undoubtedly hot at the moment, but Herrig feels their wine is authentic and has its own integrity. “Each batch is intentionally different because each batch is crafted using unique techniques and bourbon barrels.”

When asked if other wines are on the docket for the brand, Herrig replied, “With this kind of success, of course it is something we consider. But the priority is to make an exceptional wine for each batch—and our Zinfandel is the best wine for the job at the moment.”

The barrel courtesy of Temptest in a Tankard and Wooden Barrel Warehouse.

About the Author

Taylor has been writing about wine since 2001 on her website, TaylorEason.com, as well as in publications spanning the globe. To support her food and wine habits, she has an MBA in Marketing and helps build wine brands in Northern California.

Comments

  1. “What is old is new again” Never so true. I started my winery join 1971 and virtually all the barrels in the wine industry were re-purposed barrels from the distilled spirits industry. At that time French oak was a novelty. One could buy used barrel directly from a distillery or obtain them with the char removed from the DeBella Barrel Co. in San Francisco. I chose to scrape my own barrels and replace the heads when I finished. My personal best for one day was eight.

  2. As Thomas mentioned in the 1970’s French Oak was considered extravagant not to mention expensive. Sebastiani Vyds in Sonoma Ca had 7000-8000 whiskey barrels stacked in pyramids in the barrels cellars 350 yards long. They converted to american oak “Wine Barrels in early 1980’s. I was a poor cellar rat so I bought several of the used whiskey barrels for $10 each. to age my homemade wines in. When you rinsed the whiskey barrels black char pieces fell out of the bunghole after being rinsed. The inside of the whiskey barrel was blistered charcoal black. I aged a 1981 Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir from the Brunig Vyd and took 1st place out of 22 amateur wines. The comments included “Like its unique toasty quality”. Buena Vista Winery had some very old French Oak barrels that were so old that the outside of the barrels were a deep mahogany in color and shiny as if it had been spit shined. The resulting wines were very Carneros unoaked styled Pinot Noir from vineyards on Ramal Rd. Oh for those simpler days.

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