INTERVIEW Mel Knox, Mel Knox Barrel Broker, San Francisco
The Sommelier Journal
October 15 2012 Catherine Fallis, MS
A wine-industry veteran brings French barriques to California.
On one of San Francisco’s infamously cold, foggy, and damp summer days, Mel Knox regaled me with stories of his long, illustrious career as a barrel broker and winemaker. I first met Knox when I moved here more than 16 years ago, and I’ve been impressed ever since by his incredible passion for his work; though his brokerage takes up most of his time, he also partners with Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen and the François family of Burgundy cooperage François Frères to produce cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir under the name Ici/La-Bas, and with Jim Moore on the Uvaggio line of Lodi-sourced Italian-varietal wines.
Always gregarious, even in your face, this anti-salesman gets results by turning the tables on public relations. VIP customers are used to being schmoozed, but he won’t have anything to do with niceties: "So-and-so," he might opine, "is the northbound end of a horse moving south." (That’s the clean version.) Gruff as he may seem at first, though, Knox has a heart of gold. He is also incredibly humble, nearly forgetting to mention that in 2009 he was honored by the French government with the Ordre National du Mérite Agricole, a high award recognizing service to French agriculture. Our interview was one I won’t soon forget.
CATHERINE FALLIS, MS
How did you get started in the wine business?
In the 1960s, college grads who didn’t know what they were going to do with their lives went to law school, and I was on the verge of going to law school. Meanwhile, a friend of mine from Stanford, Ridge Watson, was a wine buyer at Rolly Somer’s, which was one of the 10 largest liquor stores in the country. Now it’s K&L. Anyway, I didn’t know you could make a living in the wine business; I thought the only people who did that were German or French or some Swiss guy named Dieter. But Ridge and Joe Mardesich started inviting me to tastings. Back then, you could taste anything; you could go try a vertical of Château Latour at somebody’s house. And I liked it; I had lived for a little while near the Paul Masson winery in Saratoga, which had a tasting room that I thought was pretty fascinating. I had this incipient bug, but I never really thought I could make a living in wine—until the next thing you know, I was making a living in wine. Ridge and Joe went off to open their own store, and the new owners of Rolly Somer’s found themselves in possession of a large inventory with no knowledge of what it was, so they became dependent on me.
From 1974 to 1981, I worked for Dick and Helen Allen, who had started a store in San Francisco, The Wine and Cheese Center. They were the most personable, attractive people you could ever meet—and they were public-relations savvy. They got on the cover of Money magazine as a power couple. Dick and Helen really connected with people, a lot of whom now have wineries, like Frank Farella; Phil Diamond, who started Diamond Wine Merchants; and Jim Paras, who had Jade Mountain Winery before he sold it to the Chalone Group (later purchased by Diageo) and still owns a vineyard on Mount Veeder. We did all these amazing tastings, including one that went back to 1928; with dinner, it was $50. We did verticals of Château d’Yquem going back to 1937. Diamond started a business based around importing Burgundy wines with Becky Wasserman and Jim Olson. When Becky came here from France on business trips, she would stay with me and my first wife. One time she had a really terrible flu, so I said, "Don’t worry, I’ll sell some barrels for you." Which I did. She said, "You did a pretty good job. How did that happen?" So we became partners in the barrel business; about 13 years later, I finally bought her out.
Steven Spurrier came to the Center several times; we must have had 10 dinner parties for him. He bought a lot of wines for the Paris tasting from us. We also sold German wines like you couldn’t believe; we sold 50 cases of one 1971 Auslese. Helen had a relationship with this Swiss importer, whom she later married, and through whom she found this guy who made one wheel of Emmenthal cheese a day; we would bring one in every two or three weeks. And Dick was a real pioneer with English cheeses. Every generation thinks they have discovered sex and German wine and foreign cheese—we were all a little bit ahead of our time. I brought in single-vineyard grower Champagnes in the early 1990s; nobody cared. Now they’re really hot. Of course, Darryl Corti of Corti Brothers in Sacramento did a lot of pioneering as well. But eventually the Center closed. It was located in a part of town where rent was very expensive, and the landlord took a percentage. You cannot sell wine competitively in a situation like that. So it turned more into a food takeout place, which did very well.
What got you into selling barrels?
I started selling barrels for Taransaud in the early 1980s; at that time, the cooperages weren’t very big. My main job was just calling people up and reminding them to order their barrels. When people would come over from France, I would take them to the wineries. I had a pretty good life; after about April 15, I would just go goof off. And then things started heating up in the late 1980s. The cooperages got bigger, and more and more wineries came on stream. It was a golden era for barrel sales.
What exactly does a barrel broker do?
My main job is to make sure the customers are happy. To a certain degree, we could just bring in a bunch of barrels and sell them at harvest time. But that gets really messy, so I try to get people who are going to buy anyway to do it in a timely manner. It’s harder and harder now; there’s more competition, both from cooperages and their agents. Also, it used to be that wineries would make a plan in January and follow it. Now it seems like people are constantly tweaking what they’re going to do. If you own a vineyard in Burgundy, you know how much wine you’re going to make; but let’s say you own a winery in California, and your sales manager and marketing guy say, "Well, this is how much wine we think we can sell," so you order the barrels, and three months later they say, "Oh, maybe not," or, "We need more." I do what I can to help you, but these things don’t grow on trees, you know—ha.
Right now, the French cooperages are booked through Thanksgiving. We have a lot of standing orders. Taransaud, which is based in Cognac, does a lot of business with Hennessy Cognac; they have regular customers in Bordeaux and Burgundy, and we have regular customers here going back 25 years. Dominus Estate, Opus One, and Robert Mondavi Winery buy barrels from us every year unless there’s a grape shortage.
How do you build up those relationships?
Though I am a salesman, I like to be a little bit provocative—like Bruno d’Alfonso [of Curran Wines in Santa Barbara]. Bruno is very popular because he says controversial things. The unspoken rule is that you never criticize another winemaker’s wine in front of people, but that’s boring. You have these winemaker panels—someone will say, "I think it’s really interesting that Bob pees in every barrel. I say we’d do that." Bruno will respond, " I should be peeing in the barrels. I can’t imagine Bob’s pee was ruining the wine." People love it when you shake things up; it keeps them entertained.
[Knox employee] Moke Berg and I were trying to sell Vermentino to this customer in a restaurant, and she asked, "How do you grow such a cool-climate grape in a hot climate like Lodi?" I said, "How many errors can I count in that sentence?" Moke told me later, "Mel, you’re supposed to say things diplomatically." But I’d rather say, "Get your facts straight." I can’t remember her name, but Moke says he runs into her every now and then and she shudders.
Do you have any influence over the barrel-making practices of the coopers you work with?
I have some influence, but cooperages have a certain philosophy about what they’re doing that I’m not really going to change too much. The other day, I was having lunch with [fellow broker] Jim Boswell, who said, "We all believe what our coopers do is genius." Taransaud has always had this formula of 12 months of air drying for every 10 millimeters of stave thickness; it’s practically tattooed on the arms of the coopers. I’m not going to change that, but maybe I can influence how they toast the barrels. I might get them to make a blend of medium grain and tight grain. Somebody in Bordeaux tried that as an experiment and it worked out well, so we sell that. But they’re not going to put green oak into a barrel because I say so.
What about winemakers’ role in the process? Do they get to pick the trees for their barrels?
Not generally. The truth is they’d probably pick trees that are not suitable; the cooper is the expert. But they do go out into the forest with the cooper and talk about their options. Taransaud owns a [Kentucky-based] cooperage called Canton, and Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards buys most of his American oak barrels from them. I’ve known Paul a long time. He originally worked with a guy who was the head of Blue Grass Cooperage, which is owned by Jack Daniels; at a certain point they said, "We need all the wood." Paul was used to buying well-seasoned American oak, so I turned him on to the Canton people, and he was happy again. He once told me that about 15 years ago, he went into the forests of Missouri and picked out the trees to make his barrels. Certainly it’s easier to pick out American oak trees, because they’re structurally different and less likely to leak. With French oak, you have Quercus sessiliflora and Quercus robur; they are very different from Quercus alba and the other American oak. You can read the articles I wrote about this in the Oxford Companion to Wine . Quercus robur tends to be wide grained; it’s used more for Cognac. Quercus sessiliflora tends to be tight or medium grain. But it does strike me as odd that winemakers would go to pick out trees.
Do you ever go to the forests and look around yourself?
Yes, but just to look. Taransaud had a buyer who started working at the cooperage when he was 14—and he’s still there, 50 years later. Who do you think knows the trees better, me or him? I do think too much emphasis can be placed on particular trees, though. The reality is, as Ronald Reagan said, "You’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all." The main thing you want to do when you’re buying logs is to make sure that you don’t have too much waste. Beyond that, it’s the seasoning of wood that’s most important.
Everything follows from the air drying: where it’s dried, how long it’s dried. The molds and enzymes actually create little holes in the wood. They leach out and neutralize bitter phenolics; they bring out polysaccharides. Usually you like to dry wood where it grows—where there’s a lot of rain, a lot of humidity, a lot of wind. [Australian wine researcher] Mark Sefton did an experiment one time, where he took the same lots of wood and dried them in both France and Australia, and the results were completely different. You season them in a hot, dry climate, and the results are almost bourbon-like. Air drying also impacts how the toast manifests itself in the wine. The longer you toast the barrel, the more toasty, smoked-ham or -bacon notes you get. But the longer you air dry the wood, the less toasty the wine will taste, regardless of toast level. Jean François [patriarch at François Frères] was making barrels for Saintsbury in the ’90s. The winemaker said the wood wasn’t toasty enough. François said, "I’m giving you my best wood. It is air dried the longest." So we did this experiment: we did medium, medium-plus, and heavy toasts with 18-, 24-, and 30-month air drying. It was clear that this relationship between toast levels and air drying existed. Coopers don’t like to talk about air drying because the wood is expensive, and there they are sitting on it for 30 months. The longer you dry wood, not only is it costing you capital, but you get more cracking in the staves, so you lose wood, too. It is more expensive, in short—but the better wineries will pay for it.
At a certain toast level, do you lose the characteristics of the tree?
If you don’t air dry the wood long enough, you will. I’m sure you’ve tasted wines where you go, "Whoa, this is just completely over the top, maybe a little astringent." That’s all from green oak—wood that hasn’t been properly air dried. You can get the wood down to 15% moisture content in less than a year; even when it’s raining, the wood is drying. But it’s that longer air drying that gives it subtlety. We were at a famous winery in Napa Valley with a famous French winemaker who had these particular barrels, and I said, "Hey, you have a vineyard manager." "Yes," he said. "Is he good?" "He’s great." "What about his team?" "Fantastic." "Are they all well paid?" "Yes." "Why?" "What do you mean?" "What’s the point? You put it in a barrel like this and it doesn’t matter!"
How would you describe the differences in the barriques of the coopers you work with?
I sell François Frères and Taransaud barrels, which are two different companies. Each company has a Hungarian affiliate, and I sell those barrels, too. I would say, as a general rule, Taransaud is a bit less tannic and toasty than François Frères. In Burgundy [where François Frères operates], the barrels are needed to add tannins to the wine, so traditionally the wood isn’t air dried as long. I don’t sell American oak, though I think the business has changed a lot in the last 25 years, and more and more Americans are properly air drying the wood. Demptos, which is also owned by the François company, has a relationship with a stave-mill operator in Missouri who has wood that averages probably 30 months of air drying; that has become very popular. Canton air dries the wood up to four years, and the results are fantastic.
What about the price differential?
Roughly speaking, American barrels are about half the price of the European barrels. You can buy a whiskey barrel made from really crummy oak that’s air dried for about 15 minutes for a minimal amount of money. Right now, we’re selling barrels for between $900 and $1,000, whereas even expensive American oaks are $400, maybe less.
How has the use of French versus American oak changed in California winemaking over the past few decades?
I would say I don’t feel I’m losing business to American oak. I think that if you’re in Napa Valley, for example, and you’re paying $5,000 for a ton of grapes, you’re going to age that wine the best way you can think of. It’s as simple as that. But perhaps not if you’re making what we might call price-point wines. You also have to consider that you need a place for the barrel, someone to top it, yadda, yadda, yadda. It’s an expensive proposition.
Do you see a trend toward different aging vessels in the United States, such as neutral oak or concrete eggs?
The barrel alternatives have become very big, especially for any wine under, say, $20. I’ve got a friend who, as an experiment, took some wine to a place in Napa called Safe Harbor Wine Storage. They’ve got a 4-million gallon capacity. People bring in 6,000 gallons of wine and they’ll put it in a tank, treat it with these alternative techniques, and it’s ready to be picked up four months later. You get things in the wine from various oak treatments that you wouldn’t get from using a barrel. They’ve got cubes, balls, these little things that look like beads—you know, Quercus fragmentus —and maybe they have a little microoxygenation going on. We used to have a stave mill in Oregon. You take the bark and you sell it to the mushroom farmers; you take the sap wood and sell it to plywood mills. Then you mill the wood and all the stuff that is left over from making staves, you bundle it up and air dry it for 18 months, and you sell it for chips or whatever. What is it the hog farmer used to say? "We use everything but the squeal." Get an efficient use of that log and make everybody happy about it.
It seems that every five years, things like concrete eggs become popular. I think that concrete, unless it is sealed, is going to leach a lot of calcium in the wine, which is going to reduce acidity. Maybe it provides some flavor; I don’t know. Actually, what I do see is a lot of people getting rid of their barrels sooner than they used too. There aren’t many people who have barrels older than five years.
How do you instruct your winery clients in using their barrels? Do you sell their used barrels to other markets, such as distilleries?
I try not to advise people too much. I give them ideas for taking care of their barrels, but they know when to hit me over the head to make me stop talking. And I do not sell used barrels as a general rule. I used to, but it’s like buying a used car. If a guy buys a barrel, then later has volatile-acidity issues, he wants to blame you. There are a couple of websites now that sell used barrels to wineries and the growing number of distillers. A company up in Portland [Ore.] has bought used Cognac barrels from me, but the big business is for used bourbon barrels; people who make spirits all over the world, in Spain, Taiwan, Egypt, Thailand—people who make rum, Canadian whisky, rye—all buy American oak.
Do you see American winemakers moving away from aggressive use of oak?
The real answer is that there is more than one way to skin a cat. You have people out there who are making big, powerful wines with a lot of oak for the "not for wimps" club, and then you have people like Jim Clendenen who are making wine with restraint. It’s all over the board. But I do see a lot of Sauls on the road to Damascus. Sashi Moorman used to make a lot of 15-16% alcohol wines at Stolpman Vineyards. Now that he is working for Raj Parr [of Michael Mina], he makes lower-alcohol wines. Raj is doing great work for the cause. Praise Raj and pass the 12% Pinot Noir!
Alcohol not only sucks things out of our brains and our livers, it sucks things out of the barrels. When you lower the alcohol, you are going to lower the oak. You’re going to get different components from the barrel. You’ll have lower pH, higher total acidity, different flavor, a whole different structure. If you still wanted the same amount of oak, maybe you’d have to go to 200% new oak. Most people don’t. They want that more subtle result.
Clendenen and I made this Chardonnay for Ici/La-Bas from a vineyard up in Anderson Valley. It was naturally very ripe at 22º Brix. Raj bought all of it. We had people in Burgundy arguing over which commune it was from. Unfortunately, the vineyard died and was never replanted. But if you can get ripe flavors at lower alcohol, the wine—whether you like it or not—tastes fresher. The oak profile changes. Everything changes.
What does this trend mean for sommeliers and restaurant diners?
I have no idea. Sommeliers have a lot of opinions, and they’re going to let people know about them, as Raj has. If a sommelier says, "I want a locavore wine," because they’ve read about it in the paper, I’m going over there to say, "Everything at Uvaggio is grown within a 75-mile radius. Can we get any more locavore?" If a guy says he wants lower-alcohol wine, same thing. And then the sommeliers will attract like-minded customers.
Dave Ramey [of Ramey Wine Cellars] made this point more than 20 years ago: if you manage the vineyard properly and let the grapes get to a natural ripeness, you’ll get a soft, round, balanced wine that can carry the alcohol. I have to agree, but when you do that, you’re making a different wine. I cut my teeth on clarets from the ’60s and ’70s, which were very different wines. Ten years ago, everyone was ranting about oaky wines. Now it’s the high alcohol. But the point is that many people like these wines because they’re richer.
How have these industry trends impacted your business?
People who want really discreet oak that supports a wine, that doesn’t sit on a wine, come to me. But people who make high-alcohol wines also like our barrels, which are seasoned enough to handle them well. So there’s a lot there that is very good for me.
How did you get involved in winemaking?
I had a friend at Acacia who said, "If the Three Stooges can make movies, we can make wine." So I’ve made a lot of wine in conjunction with a lot of different winemakers. And I’ve realized that making wine is a full-time job; it requires my presence when I should be selling barrels. Now I’ve learned to have partners in these things.
My thing about Lodi is that if you plant the right grapes, you can make some pretty nifty wines. We’re having our best year. I don’t think Lodi is a place for Riesling and Pinot Noir, but Albariño, which grows in a very cool part of Spain, is doing well there. A lot of Spanish and Italian varieties do; we’re getting Barbera, Primitivo, and Moscato Giallo as well as Vermentino. There are all kinds of opportunities in Lodi. And you don’t get any of the veggie characteristics that people disdain—even if they’re present in classic claret.
How does your knowledge of barrel making affect the way you make wine?
It impacts what we do. Of course, a lot of the Uvaggio wines, like the Vermentino and the dry Muscat, are made in stainless steel. The Primitivo and Barbera are made in barrel. I think the Sangiovese we made in Taransaud puncheons was really good, but it didn’t make a profit. Now we’re primarily using François Frères barrels that fell off the back of a truck, as well as barrels from Kádár, the Hungarian cooperage that Taransaud is involved in.
What is special about the Hungarian barrels?
They are less expensive, but the wood is the same species used in France. We have one barrel that we call the Max—it’s a subtle, elegant barrel that we say maximizes your wine’s pleasure. People have been making serious Hungarian-oak barrels for less than 20 years; I think that Hungary and all those Eastern European countries are still looking to find their way. But Taransaud created a partnership with Kádár, which is actually managed to a certain degree by a Hungarian-American family, the Molnars, who live in Berkeley. They built a stave mill up near the Tokaj forest, and they orient the wood in the drying yard so that it lets all the wind and rain pass through. The results have been just incredible; they’ve changed the nature of Hungarian oak. Have you ever had the Molnar Family Wines? Michael Terrien and Alex Beloz make Syrah, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay in Kádár barrels. [Read more about Terrien, his partners Peter and Arpad Molnar, and their work with Kádár in the Winery Spotlight on Tricycle Wine Company, July 15, 2012.] It’s a long, slow process. Kenwood tried 10, then 20, then 30, and now they’re up to 80 barrels. We have a lot of customers in the Paso Robles area. Business is growing.
Defending the use of Hungarian oak is hard for sommeliers perhaps, but it is even more challenging to convince the winemakers. They’ve all probably had some bad experiences. I think that the sommelier who likes subtle, elegant wines would like the Hungarian barrels that I sell.
What does the future hold for you and your barrel brokerage?
The future’s so bright I have to wear shades.
Mel Knox Barrel Broker
505 29th Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94121
(415) 751-6306 www.knoxbarrels.com