"That should get 'er going!"
Peter Bradford is throwing wood into a 223-year-old oven designed to light oak barrels on fire. He is a cooper and quite literally the last of a dying breed of craftsman—he's the only full-time barrel-maker left in Canada.
"I did a seven-year apprenticeship in Kansas City," Bradford recounts. "After my first year, my mentor realized that I was really serious about this, and he gave me this barrel-toasting oven that was made in Fayette, Missouri in 1793. I do all of my spirit barrels on this—the whiskey, rum, and bourbon barrels—because this thing is incredible for firing barrels."
Bradford is firing up the oven to put the burn on a barrel destined for 66 Gilead, a local distillery. While most future wines cannot handle such intensity, today the oven is cranked up to 11 heat because these barrels will be taking in the hard stuff and giving it a distinct character. "Charring the barrel gives it a smoky vanilla kind of thing. When it comes to lighter toasting, there's butterscotch, and popcorns and vanillas, just depending on the wood and what's been in it."
Bradford's passion for barrels goes back to the tender age of six. "My grandfather was a butcher and he had a butcher shop, and when I was a kid I would hang out in his storage rooms. There were two barrels in there; one had pigs' heads and the other blood and guts and shit floating in it and I just said, 'That's what I want to do.'"
More than 50 years later, after decades spent studying the craft of barrel-making from afar, he finally decided to take the plunge after losing his job in the auto industry. "I studied barrel-making on my own for twenty years. I managed a manufacturing facility that designed and built robotic equipment for GM and Chrysler, but I was always doing the old-school in my spare time."
But for all of his technical understanding of barrel-making, Bradford brings a uniquely human touch to his craft. He even talks to his barrels while he works with them, mostly in profanities, which is understandable given the intense heat coming off of the fire. "They each have their own temperament," he says of the barrels. "Wood is alive and it talks to you—so I talk back!"
His cooperage is nestled behind an equally anti-conformist winery called Black Prince in Prince Edward County, Ontario. Matt McCann is a chemist and assistant winemaker at Black Prince who uses his chemistry background to experiment with different techniques and flavour profiles, perhaps most notably their "Mary Jane's" line of hemp-infused wine.
"We use the unoaked chardonnay—because it has a lot of character—as a base, and then there's a hemp farm in Peterborough that we source the seeds from," McCann says. "There's no THC, and about 90 percent of the sales are, like, housewives who want to be the cool mom, or give it to their nephews and nieces and say, 'Look what I got!' I tell people it pairs really nicely with Pop-Tarts and Doritos and things like that.[laughs] But the hemp pulls out all of the Omega-3-6-9 fatty acids and the vitamins and minerals, so it's actually pretty healthy."
Even Black Prince's name is a reference to a cooler, darker Prince Edward. "We're in Prince Edward County, and that Prince Edward is from the 1800s, the son of Queen Victoria," he says. "But we went back a little further to a different Prince Edward, the son of King Edward III in the 1300s. If you've seen A Knight's Tale with Heath Ledger, he's in that—he's the Black Knight. No one would ever challenge him in jousts because if they injured him, they'd be put to death because he was royalty, so he would go all incognito and dress in black."
For Black Prince general manager Geoff Webb, part of that ethos means distancing himself from other Prince Edward County wineries which adhere to a more traditional Burgundian formula. For him, pairing up with Canada's last master barrel-maker was a no-brainer.
"Outside of Burgundy, Prince Edward County has the most limestone-rich soil for growing grapes. But we're not trying to emulate French wines—they're fantastic—but they're French wines. We're making Canadian wine here, and what better way to do it than by using a local cooper—the last one in Canada? Barrel-making has been taken over almost entirely in the US by huge factories. They're pushing out bourbon barrels and Jack Daniels' barrels, but there is no one making barrels by hand."
For Webb, Peter Bradford is a key component to the "total terroir" approach of Black Prince, which extends far beyond the limestone-rich soil of Prince Edward County.
"We have local oak growing in Prince Edward County, and Pete has been able to harvest local oak trees and make barrels out of local wood," Webb says. "It doesn't get much better than local grapes with local wood. It's very rare to have a place where the wood for wine barrels grows at the same place as the grapes. Even in France, the 'French-made' barrels are made with oak mostly from Russia and other places."
But Bradford's contribution to the vineal ecosystem of Prince Edward County is not limited to his sourcing of local oak. He is also making vinegar by using overoxidized wines from local winemakers who would otherwise throw it out.
"There's nobody else aging vinegar in Canada," Bradford says. "I brought my 32 years of making barrels to aging vinegars and I realized that I'm doing what I was trained to do. That barrel burning on the fire, you basically have to leave it on the fire until it tells you it's ready, and that's what I'm doing with the vinegar. You know when it's ready."
In other words, Bradford doesn't rush the process. Among his vinegar experiments are a pinot noir infused with coffee, a riesling and lemon mix, and a 14-year-old chardonnay with infused with ginger. He is even using a fractional blending method called Solera, which is very difficult to find outside of Spain, in order to age his flagship balsamic.
But for all of his experimentation and experience, it was ultimately an accidental spill that made Bradford realize that he was really onto something with the vinegar.
"Canadian oak is the new kid on the block, and everybody was saying that American and French oak were superior. But I knew it would taste different, and in order to test this, I needed something other than water. Spirits were out of the question, and so was wine, because they were too expensive. So, I ended up meeting Geoff here at Black Prince and he gave me wine that had overoxidized and was turning to vinegar. My goal wasn't to make vinegar, but then I spilled some on my hand and it tasted really good."
As unconventional as Bradford may be, his hands-on approach to vinegar and barrel-making adds a dimension to the final product which is slowly being washed away in a sea of mechanization.
"As the winemaker here, I work closely with Peter," Geoff Webb says. "When we toast a barrel, he'll do it to a specification that I know it will work for the grape—we don't have to call 1-800-Barrels and get mass-produced barrels. Pete really brings a human touch, and that's what makes the magic, that's when you have eureka moments. He is absolutely part of the terroir."