Barrels all start with a tree.
A barrel made of oak wood has been the preferred container for aging wine for hundreds of years. They maintain their popularity even though they are clumsy to handle, expensive, and perishable. As soon as a barrel is empty of wine, it must be cleaned to avoid molds and deterioration. Traditionally the simplest way to remove deposits adhering to the internal surface is to use a chain. The chain acted as an abrasive and aided in the cleaning process.
With that statement, I was reminded of two large metal chains, approximately six feet long in the Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo Collection. I also remembered that when we obtained them originally, I was told they were referred to as vat cleaning chains. Since then, I have seen them also referred to as rinsing chains and defined as a good implement for loosening any impurities in a barrel.
My initial thoughts about these objects were the beauty and craft in the artifacts themselves. They had the essence of a utilitarian artform, and I thought we needed to have them within the Collection for that fact alone. I now realize that they were not only beautiful but important tools to the maintenance of barrels. Let me attempt to explain.
The Importance of Cooperage
It used to be that wineries made their own barrels; the owner did so, or they knew someone who made barrels, or they had a cooperage local to their vineyards. And just because they had some barrels, they could only utilize them for just so long. Barrels are considered having gone “neutral” after four to six years.
Much emphasis has been placed on the cleanliness of a winery. Today many modern wineries use stainless steel tanks or concrete eggs or amphorae to hold the fermenting wine because once emptied these tanks may be easily cleaned and sanitized. Winery floors now are usually hard floors made of concrete which are designed to drain dry. And the equipment, which is mounted and sited can be cleaned above, around, and below thoroughly.
Many of our local San Luis Obispo County wineries obtain their barrels from Manu Fiorentini. His business, ITEK WINES, supplies barrels, amphorae, or concrete eggs to winemakers throughout the county. Fiorentini started selling on California’s Central Coast and has been the agent for the Sylvain family in France since 2011. He believes, as do the three companies in France owned by the Sylvains, that sustainability, preservation, and transparency should be important to the full range of barrels, vats, and casks which they provide.
Tonnellerie Sylvain cooperage
As of 2022 there are 47 employees, and 33,000 barrels are produced per year. Seventy percent of these are exported to the Northern Hemisphere (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, U.S.) and also to the Southern Hemisphere (Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa). Gérard Sylvain set up his first workshop in 1957. His son, Jean-Luc Sylvain, along with his children Clairé and Remi carried on this tradition in the heart of the Bordeaux vineyards, near Saint Emilion in France.
Tonnellerie Meyrieux cooperage
This cooperage was established in 1991 by Daniel Meyrieux in the wine town of Nuits-Saint-Georges in the heart of Burgundy. They bring unique Burgundian expertise. In 2010 the Tonnellerie Meyrieux became part of Famille Sylvain. They share the same values. Meyrieux currently produces some 6,000 barrels a year.
Foundrerie Marc Grenier
This business is based in Corberon in Burgundy and produces vinification vats. Since 1982 they have been present in the heart of Burgundy. In 2015 Grenier retired and handed over the running of his Foundrerie to Famille Sylvain. The vats and casks are used around the world in over 18 countries.
Vat Chains /Rinsing Chains– The Artifacts in our Collection
I considered these objects at first sight to be “crafts” metalwork and loved them just for that. The look is reminiscent of medieval times. They reminded me of a type of medieval chain weapon, or torture device/chains used in a torture chamber. I was reminded of a visit made to London, specifically to the Tower of London approximately ten years ago. At that time, I participated on a tour of the various hidden locations within the property, centered in the city of London, in view of the Tower Bridge on the River Thames. During the reigns of the Tudors and early Stuarts, there was a windowless cell called “Little Ease” which was principally part of the royal residence, armory, military stronghold, and menagerie. It became a place of pain as I discovered when the guide explained the “rack” and the chains used during the sixteenth century to inflict pain and torture. Well, these vat chains initially reminded me of those same torture chains; but I still believed we needed them in our Collection.
Tower of London April 2012
Photo by Cindy Lambert
These artifacts were used to remove residue from the fermenting vats and large wooden wine tanks. They would have been twirled on a handle and beaten on the sides and floor of the cask.
Object ID: WHP-CT59C
Materials: Iron, bristles
Size: 6 Feet
This one has brushes built into the chain design.
Object ID: WHP-CT60A
Size: 6 Feet
Job Title in 1949 – Barrel Cleaner
“A person who drops a length of heavy chain in a barrel bung hole. This person will bounce the barrel over cleats on the floor, the jarring of the chain dislodging residuum adhering to the barrel.”
This information was discovered in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, United States Employment Service 1949. No salary was mentioned.
The Wine Merchant’s Companion and Butler’s Manual
When doing my research on these artifacts, I discovered an article in this book. The book contains what is quoted as the “best” information on the selection and management of French wines. It was published by W. Anderson on Waterloo Place in London and written by Andre Jullien in 1825. Here is the information from the book:
“Making use of the rinsing chain. The chain is about six feet long, consisting of links made of square iron whose corners will more readily detach the lees from the old wood wine casks. One end is attached to a long conical bung to keep it from falling into the cask, and the other is “armed with a square block of iron of a size to easily go into the bunghole. After pouring in two to three gallons of boiling water, leave the cask for a while so that the lees may become softened, then introduce the chain by the bunghole, and close it with the bung at the other end of the instrument. Thoroughly roll and agitate the cask till the chain and its iron block have removed the lees so that they will run out with the water. Repeat the operation with clean water as often as necessary, and rinse till the water runs out limpid, and let the cask drain.
Rinsing casks crusted with the lees, a chain, the links of which are made of square iron, and which is terminated by a little block of the same metal, oval, and of eight sides [sic]. After having emptied twelve or twenty-four pints of water into the cask, the chain is to be introduced up to the stopple, which rests on the bung hole, and keeps it steady. The cask is then shaken on all sides, in order that the chain passing over the whole of the interior surface, may loosen the crust and leave it clear. The chain is then taken out and the cask drained; after inspecting the inside it must be rinsed with water, until it comes out clean. You must be careful not to let the match fall into the cask, because it will communicate a bad taste to the wine. If the tartar on the sides of the vessel is bright, without stain, the cask is in good order.”
Remember, there was no electricity when these instructions were written, so the introduction of the match without preliminary discussion was assumed since there would have been no other way to see inside the barrel or vat without using said match.
The Wine History Project has a large collection of artifacts used during the 19th and 20th centuries in the vineyards and for winemaking. If you wish to make a donation to our collection, please contact Cindy Lambert at email@example.com
Winemaker Magazine, 2019 . Article entitled “Lifespan of a Wine Barrel”, written by Bob Peak
The Wine Merchant’s Companion and Butler’s Manual, published by W. Anderson on Waterloo Place in London and written by Andre Jullien in 1825
Dictionary of Occupational Titles, United States Employment Service 1949.
Foundrerie Marc Grenier