In a small Missouri town, a cooperage makes barrels that age award-winning Napa Valley wine
Many wineries in California's winegrowing region age their cabernet sauvignon in barrels imported from France. But Silver Oak Winery, located in California’s iconic Napa Valley and Alexander Valley, gets its barrels from a town of about 600 people in mid-Missouri.
The Oak Cooperage in Higbee manufactures about 90% of all barrels used to age Silver Oak’s award-winning cabernet sauvignon. There’s something about northern Missouri’s white oak, said Tony LeBlanc, president of Silver Oak Winery and general manager of The Oak.
“We've tried Arkansas, Ohio, Kentucky and Minnesota wood,” LeBlanc said. “In our blind tastings, we always seem to gravitate to the wood that we see from northern Missouri. It's really just a symbiotic relationship”
The climate of Missouri seems to be perfect for the palates of the team at the California winery, he said.
"It’s very difficult to exactly explain," LeBlanc said. "It's more one of those things where it just is right."
Higbee businessman Dale Kirby and his father-in-law founded the cooperage as A&K Cooperage in 1972 to produce kegs. After a request from Silver Oak co-founder Justin Meyer, the cooperage made its first 59-gallon wine barrel.
By 2000, Silver Oak owned 50% of the cooperage, and in 2015, it purchased the business from the Kirby family as Dale and his wife Carol Kirby neared retirement. After acquiring the business, Silver Oak rebranded to The Oak Cooperage. Today, the cooperage brings in an annual revenue of about $2.5 million.
The Oak was the first major business in Higbee related to the alcohol and drinks industry. Now, the town is also home to a winery, two distilleries and a smaller cooperage.
The Oak's master cooper and operations manager Danny Orton credits that to Kirby, who built several businesses in Higbee. The coopering and alcohol industry is one of the biggest in town, Orton said.
Manufacturing barrels during a pandemic
The Oak didn't feel a slowdown in its operation during the pandemic like many other businesses did, but the cooperage is certainly not immune to inflation that has forced prices up across the nation.
“The cost of steel has gone up tremendously, about 25%. Wood, 25%. Labor, it's gone up quite a bit – 30, 40%,” Orton said.
As material costs have risen, overall production costs have also increased. The price of producing a barrel has gone up between 20% and 25%, Orton said. Earlier this year, it cost The Oak $24 to make the average barrel. Last month, it was $32, Orton said.
The Oak has had to mitigate costs by increasing its prices. Shipping costs have increased amid a truck driver shortage that has left the trucking industry 80,000 drivers short in 2021, according to the American Trucking Association.
“In January, we had a load go out for $4,800. It’s, right now, $5,600 to $5,800," Orton said in July.
For larger orders that need to travel long distances or have to be expedited, The Oak may charge up to $7,000, Orton said.
A worker shortage has affected the business as well. While The Oak is fully staffed with 10 employees, it has struggled to find workers when cooper positions open. For the past few years, the only applicants have been men over the age of 60, Orton said. While this hasn’t been an issue for The Oak, younger candidates have been scarce, Orton said.
“It takes twice as long or longer than that to even get people to come in and apply,” Orton said. “It's pretty hard to hire for a good position right now.”
For other positions, it's a different story. When the cooperage was hiring for an administrative assistant earlier this year, there were so many applications it took three weeks to go through the hiring process, Orton said.
The Oak's outlook
Despite price increases and labor issues, The Oak has its eyes on what’s up ahead. The cooperage has plans to remain in Higbee and grow its operations.
“We're small, we don't have any interest in getting huge,” Orton said. “We, of course, want to raise our production, but would never want to be that cooperage that runs 80 to 90 barrels a day.”
It’s important to maintain the roots to the community that the cooperage has, even after Silver Oak’s acquisition, LeBlanc said.
After half a century in Higbee, The Oak has grown from one building to a compound of facilities.
“It's a unique place,” Orton said, “This has always been part of Higbee.”
This story was originally published on the Missouri Business Alert.