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Southbrook Vineyards approach to water management in barrel cleaning

Our last blog post was about how Flat Rock Cellars improved the efficiency of their barrel cleaning process by measuring what they were doing, making improvements and then verifying the results. But what if you want to skip all that and just dive right in to the most efficient process you can?

We spoke with Ann Sperling from Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake about their approach. Sustainability and water management have always been a priority at Southbrook. They produce wine that is certified organic and biodynamic, built the first LEED Gold winery building in Canada, harvest rainwater for use in the vineyard, and utilize an engineered wetland and naturalized landscaping to manage wastewater and stormwater. So it should come as no surprise that the procedures Southbrook uses to maintain their barrels are the most water efficient ones we’ve come across.

The first line of defense against excess water use is to keep barrels filled with wine as often as possible. When wineries store barrels, they typically wash and sanitize them both before and after storage. By refilling barrels within a few days of being emptied, Southbrook eliminates the need for double-washing.

When Southbrook empties a barrel that is to be refilled with the same varietal, the barrel is emptied and allowed to drain. And then…nothing. The barrel is filled without washing. Zero water. While winemakers who do not share Southbrook’s natural and non-interventionist philosophy to winemaking may have trouble giving up that control, Sperling has embraced the complexity it imparts to their vintages and Southbrook’s many awards can attest to the quality wine she produces.

Similarly, when barrels do need to be put into storage, they are drained, but the wine residue is left on the surface of the barrel. The idea being that the low pH and alcohol content of the wine residue, combined with burning a sulfur wick every 6 weeks, provides sufficient protection. When the barrels are taken out of storage they are inspected to determine the amount of washing that is required and whether ozone sanitation is necessary. Between 30 to 50 litres of water is used to clean each barrel coming out of storage.

Southbrook has managed to significantly reduce the amount of water, time, and energy that goes into barrel maintenance by challenging the status quo and embracing a natural approach to wine making that is not just gentler on the wine, but gentler on the environment as well.

We have added Southbrook’s example as a new case study within Water & Wine’s section on Barrel Cleaning. Please visit the module on Reducing Water Consumption and Wastewater Strength for more ideas on how to improve water efficiency in your winery.

Use less water by reviewing barrel cleaning

Barrels are one of the most iconic symbols of winemaking, and their care and use is probably the subject of more discussion than any other single piece of equipment used by winemakers. So, how can you use less water, but still have barrels that will last and produce high quality and great tasting wine?

When we were developing the content for Water & Wine it became apparent that while both the cleaning  and hydration of barrels are major users of water, there weren’t any standard procedures that wineries could seem to agree upon. An approach adopted by one winemaker could be shunned by another. Given this, we figured the best strategy was to provide wineries with different examples of how others are cleaning barrels using less water, and some instructions on how wineries can examine their own procedures to find efficiencies.

Flat Rock Cellars in Jordan, Ontario provides a good example of how wineries can go about optimizing their procedures.

Using less water matters

Flat Rock's commitment to the environment is a driver to use less water

Flat Rock Cellars

Flat Rock’s commitment to the environment goes well beyond maintaining one of the most picturesque wineries in Niagara. They have embraced an approach to sustainable winemaking as a key part of their environmentally conscious culture. This includes  geothermal heating and cooling, gravity flow winemaking and low-impact viticulture to better manage their water and energy resources. Flat Rock relies on a well for the majority of their water supply and they treat this as a precious resource. By using water more efficiently, they can avoid trucking in municipal water (which is costly and contains high levels of chlorine) to supplement their well supply.

Flat Rock recognized that cleaning and hydrating barrels takes a lot of water and time, so any improvement they could make to become more efficient would lead to immediate paybacks and benefits. Given the investment barrels represent to a winery, they also needed to be sure any changes in their care would not have negative impacts or unintended consequences.

Figuring out how to use less water

They began by getting data by measuring how much water was being used to clean a barrel. Flat Rock’s well water first passes through a Reverse Osmosis (RO) treatment system. It is then stored in large polyethylene tanks. They are able to track the water level in the tanks before and after a barrel cleaning session to estimate the volume used. (For more information of how to measure water use visit the Water & Wine module on Water Use Monitoring)

Use less water to clean barrels with impingement nozzlesnozzles

Cleaning a Barrel with a Gamajet Nozzle

Then they began manually timing each barrel wash cycle to determine the shortest amount of time the water could be run while still achieving proper cleanliness. Using hot pressurized water helped break down lees and tartrates quicker and ozone provided an efficient means of sanitation. After adjusting the timing of each step, they had to wait a few months to make sure the barrel remained damp and clean. Eventually they settled on a 5 minute hot water rinse using a 360 Gamajet fitting followed by 1 minute rinse with ozonated water.

One of the biggest challenges they faced during this process was the amount of time it took to verify if a barrel was “clean enough” using a sight and smell approach. Swab testing of barrels might have been able to help in this regard, but would have incurred additional costs and would still take time to get results.

Savings go beyond water

As a result of this process, Flat Rock was able to use less water in barrel cleaning and maintenance by 15 per cent. Treating and trucking in less water means saving money and less concern about chlorine. More efficient barrel cleaning procedures also means that staff can do other things since they’re spending less time with barrels.

This structured approach to measuring and gathering information on how much water you’re are using, finding efficiencies and better ways of doing it, and verifying results can be applied by any winery regardless of size, and can have a big impact on your operations.

Have you found ways to use less water to maintain barrels? Please share your experience in the comments below.