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Coopering: It’s not sexy but it’s important

Barrels at the Carriage House Cooperage.

Rich Godden/Studio 59

'It's a touchy-feely thing," says Pete Bradford. What he means is that barrel-making requires all of your senses. You have to eye the right 200-year-old white oak and examine the planks for imperfections. When cutting, you have to taste and smell the wood's flavour while fashioning the planks into tapered staves and fitting them snugly into a hoop. You nose the "toast" of a barrel, charring the inside to know the correct level for the wine, and you listen to the ring when hammering the hoops on to know when it's tight.

Coopering has never been a sexy trade, but the barrel was once indispensable to the global economy. It made the British Empire possible. But just as empires fall, so technological advances and new synthetic containers did the barrel in. Mr. Bradford thinks it's time for a renaissance in this 2,000-year-old profession. Located in an old pig barn in Prince Edward County, Ont., the Carriage House Cooperage is a two-person operation that's revitalizing a moribund art and building utterly unique Canadian barrels. What's old suddenly seems cutting-edge again.

Mr. Bradford has a forestry degree. Old World artisan woodworking has been his hobby for two decades; but he read about it rather than did it. When he was laid off from his job of 20 years, his partner, Marla Cameron, convinced him to start the long journey to becoming only the second cooper in Canada.

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After a difficult search for a mentor, they found Dale Kirby in Missouri, a master cooper with 40 years experience. Mr. Bradford hopes to finish his seven-year apprenticeship next year; Ms. Cameron will finish hers soon after. Once finished, they can take on apprentices of their own.

With support from local wineries, breweries and a distiller, they're now fielding inquiries for their product from as far away as Italy, while their barrels are lending a Canadian flavour to stellar County and Niagara wines.

Although French and American barrels dominate the market, Mr. Bradford sees an opening for a local product. "We don't make a Canadian oak barrel. We make a Huntsville or a Niagara or an Ottawa Valley; wherever the wood comes from, we identify those barrels." They even convinced their neighbour Doug Storring to open a sawmill down the road. Mr. Storring has cut cherry and ash for them so far.

This terroir of wood presents an exciting opportunity for winemakers, says Dan Sullivan, owner of Rosehall Run in Prince Edward County and one of Carriage House's first supporters. "Hopefully, we'll be able to really refine the qualities of the wood that he's producing so that there's a very defined flavour that we can expect from different forests."

Mr. Sullivan says Canadian oak sits between the more vanilla-y, sweeter American oak and the spicy, smokey and more refined French oak. Most of his wines use French, but it's the intimate partnership with Mr. Bradford that allows him to craft special wines such as the 2010 Canadian Oak Chardonnay.

For the ultimate in terroir, a wine and barrel from the same soil, Mr. Bradford is aging wood from two white oaks that grew 10 metres from Mr. Sullivan's vines. "That's as close to local terroir as you're ever going to get," says Mr. Bradford.

Another unique creation is their COACH barrel, made from Canadian oak, ash, cherry and hickory. Designed for vinegars, ports, sherries and ice wines, it was used by the County Cider Company to age its 2010 ice cider, and took home a best-in-show award at the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition. The COACH also interests 66 Gilead Distillery, Mr. Bradford's neighbours, who use his Missouri-oak barrels for their aged whisky and rums.

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Even though the barrels are competitively priced with French ones, Carriage House's "biggest challenge is breaking tradition, getting winemakers to look outside the box," says Mr. Bradford. To get their foot in the door, they offered credit for old barrels to wineries that would take a chance on theirs.

Scale is also an issue: They produce just one barrel a day.

Success can also be held hostage by the whims of the weather. Mr. Bradford and Ms. Cameron almost lost their business last year because their wood couldn't age correctly, due to humidity and rain; this year's heat has caused a fire ban that prevented them from toasting barrels for two months. Faced with such problems, they've grown their business in other directions by building furniture out of old barrels and selling wine vinegars.

But coopering is what they love and if it's up to them, the barrel will rise again. Ms. Cameron says they've had interest from all over the world for apprenticeships, from the Czech Republic to Scotland to people who walk in the door, young and old.

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