Friday, April 9, 2010

Move over France, Chinese make wine barrels?

So here's a photo story that surprised me...

During my first trip to China, it wasn't until the second or third day of visiting Bodega Langes winery in Hebei Province that I found out. Toward the end of the day, the winemaker casually mentioned that they made their own barrels.

As a wine-type guy in total disbelief, I probably blurted something like, "What. Wait a minute. You make oak barrels?"

"为什么没有?" (for those unfortunate few who can't understand Chinese, I think that's "why not?"), replies the practical winemaker. "When each French oak barrel costs around 6800 RMB (That's about $1000 US), we look how to cut costs. The oak comes from mountain forests in northern China."

So off to the facility my volunteer driver, want-to-be sommelier interpreter and I go. We head to the industrial part of town. All the signs are, well, Chinese to me. This is not exactly the touristy part of town, or the entire Province for that fact. But our Chinese-speaking GPS indentified the exact location.

We drive through the gate of the cyclone fence. We're still not sure this is the right place. It's not exactly the romantic image of the little-ol'-barrel maker on the edge of the Burgundian
hillside village. From the outside, the cooperage looks exactly like the neighboring factories making hydraulic lifts, long-haul truck parts and steel trusses. The area smells like a factory zone.

But this is the place. They make almost all of the Bodega Langes' barrels and enough additional ones to sell to other Chinese wineries at a profit.

So here is the process, except for the factory atmosphere, that is duplicated in hand- crafting cooperages in France, H
ungary or the United States.

First the oak is dried, either outdoors or in a kiln, then cut into staves.

Then the wood is assembled into a barrel. Note the slow shutter speed to show hammer motion. That way the worker can show his boss he is actually working.

Like many things in life, fire and water allows the maker to curve the wood into a barrel shape. The fire heats the wood inside while the worker hits the outside with a wet mop-like brush. This allows him to bend the wood. After the barrel is complete, the inside might be charred according to the winemaker's specifications.

For photographers doing a story, it's always good to have B roll (film making for close ups and details) material.

Leaving the factory, I snap the "No Smoking" sign beside a Troll-sized butt container. This in China where smoking is a national epidemic.

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