I’ve sometimes wondered about the origin of names. I’m sure that there are a number of different ways that people get their names, and this varies from culture to culture. Everyone’s familiar with the American Indian legend of naming children by whatever omen was seen at the time of their conception or birth. Robinson comes from “sons of Robin,” the offspring of Robin Goodfellow, the randy fellow that tramped through the village on Beltane Eve to deflower all of the fair maidens. Some names may have derived from what the person did for a living. Smith is an easy one; a person who works with metal, like a blacksmith, silversmith, or goldsmith. My own name Crocker may mean that I have someone in my past that made clay pots. Cooperage is the term for barrel making, hence the name of Cooper. Actually the term cooperage comes from the Latin word Cupa, or vat, but that doesn’t mean that somebody didn’t take his or her name from it.
No one really knows when the first Cooper engaged in the first act of cooperage, but back in the 13th century B.C. the Celts arrived in the area of France that we today call Burgundy. The Celts were an inventive people who worked with clay, wood, iron, and precious metals. Oddly enough, the making of wine barrels may be linked to the making of boats. They discovered that by heating and bending wood, they could fashion a better hull for their boats. They may have used this talent to make some of the first wine barrels. This would have been a great improvement over the earthenware pots that they had stored their wine in previously.
Initially the cooper was also in charge of the wine cellar. He not only made the barrel, but he also watched over the fermentation and cared for the wine. When the wine started being drawn off into bottles instead of being served directly out of the barrel, the vintner took over the task of caring for the wine.
Wood has several advantages over modern materials like steel and plastic. The carbon dioxide and ethers that mask the aroma of the wine evaporate through the wood. Oxidation, which is allowed by the porosity of the wood, helps the wine lose its astringency and makes it softer and suppler. The wood also adds color and a warm amber flavor to the wine. The wine (or bourbon) that evaporates through the wood during the ageing process must be replaced to prevent over oxidation. The part that evaporates is referred to as the “angel’s share.”
The best wood for ageing wine is oak. It seems to have just the right amount of porosity. The quality of Missouri white oak makes the state the largest producer of wine barrels in the world. We are home to several different cooperage firms. A and K Cooperage is a small factory located in Missouri that was recently purchased in part by Silver Oak Winery located in Napa California. World Cooperage was founded in 1912 and has become the biggest in the world. Founded and currently owned by the Boswell family, the company has five stave and heading mills, including mills in France and Bulgaria. They also have fifteen lumber buying yards scattered throughout the Midwest. This gives them the capacity to ship American white oak and French and Eastern European oak barrels throughout the world.
It’s only natural that since Missouri was one of the first states to produce wine, as well as beer and distilled spirits, that they would be the first and largest to make the barrels to put all of the stuff in.