Calistoga barrel crafters rely on old-world techniques
By DOUG ERNST / Napa Valley Correspondent
If two years of large grape harvests has created a shortage of wine barrels in Sonoma and Napa counties, it would be news to Vincent Nadalie. His family has owned and operated an old-world cooperage in Calistoga since 1980 and boasts five generations of experience.
“Just tell me who needs them, and we can supply them,” said Nadalie, Nadalie USA’s sales manager. “Just come and ring my doorbell.”
Starting each day at 6:30 a.m., the company’s 16 coopers, including five masters, produce 60 barrels a day using Eastern European oak and American oak that comes from a Pennsylvania mill owned by the company.
Another 160 French oak barrels are made daily at the company’s main cooperage, Tonnellerie Nadalie in Ludon-Medoc, Bordeaux, France. Because wine barrels usually last only for three or four vintages, wineries are constantly seeking new ones.
The constant demand has Nadalie thinking about expanding production, but he is reluctant to completely modernize his operation.
“I have an advantage because I’ve been building and repairing barrels for years,” said Nadalie. He grew up making barrels for the family business and, like his workers, still lives nearby.
Nadalie was raised in St. Helena, attended public schools, became a master cooper, attended Napa Valley College and returned to Europe to complete his education in business and marketing before returning to Calistoga. He and his wife, Katja, have two sons, Raphael, 10 and Silvio, 7, who go to the same schools he attended.
Nadalie is proud, not only of his five-generation heritage as a French cooper, but also of his family, which has been making barrels since 1902.
“We are one of the oldest family-owned cooperages in the world,” said Nadalie. “Only two others are as old, so our name is pretty well known.”
His father, Jean-Jacques Nadalie, came to America in 1978 at the urging of Napa Valley vintner Ric Forman.
Forman studied at UC Davis in the late 1960s and was part of the era that produced top local winemakers such as Justin Meyer and Nils Venge. He worked in Sonoma at Kendall-Jackson and in Napa at Robert Mondavi and Stony Hill, and with Peter Newton, founder of Sterling and Newton Vineyards.
In the late 1970s, Newton sent Forman to France to study winemaking techniques that Forman took back to Napa, including barrel-to-barrel racking.
“Ric met my grandfather, and he told my dad to create a cooperage here in the Napa Valley,” said Nadalie. He did, starting with Duane Wall as a partner. Wall has since retired.
“Dad had four kids, and when he arrived here, he slept at the Duckhorn home,” Nadalie said.
Throughout the Calistoga cooperage’s history, business has vacillated. The peak came 10 years ago, when production was about 20 percent higher than it is today. Next year, he hopes to return to that level.
Nadalie said his customers tend to trust the workmanship that goes into each barrel, and they appreciate quality service.
“The marriage of the wood and the wine builds trust over time with the winemakers,” he said. “They know the product we have is consistent, as well as the customer service.
“A machine is not human contact, and human contact is important,” he said. “It’s what I found in this community, a family atmosphere like we have in Medoc, where I come from, which is also small.”
Nadalie works with his three siblings: Stephane, CEO of Group Nadalie; Guillaume, manager of the oak add-ins in France; and Christine, sales manager of the cooperage in Medoc and winemaker at Chateau Beau Rivage.