The following articles were authored by Cellarmasters Club Member

Andy’s Corner: Barrel Topping

Should I top my barrels regularly?

The short answer is: No. Only top when you open the barrel, for instance when you sample or rack.

But, but, but won’t the wine be ruined by the air in the headspace if I don’t top regularly?

No, there is no oxygen in the headspace that forms in a sealed barrel.

“The ullage that develops over the wine as liquid escapes through the wood is not a source of spoilage. It contains no oxygen. 

“Thus, filling the ullage space (topping) is necessary only when air enters the barrel during wine sampling or racking.

Only with very long aging, as in brandy, is it likely that the ullage will become sufficiently large that the wood above the space will dry. During drying, shrinkage of the wood will permit the ingress of oxygen. Even here, this is most likely to be between, rather than through, the staves.”

Ron S. Jackson
Wine science: principles, practice, perception

This concept, that the head space above the wine in the barrel, is not “air” and does not contain oxygen and does not spoil the wine,  an be a tough one to wrap your head around.

Here’s how it works…

Liquid wicks its way out of the barrels through the staves by the force of capillary action, the same way water wicks its way up to the leaves on top of the tallest trees.

In a barrel sealed by a bung this wicking action creates a forceful vacuum, which, at first, compresses the barrel itself. After the barrel is compressed to its maximum extent, air is then drawn into the barrel and into the wine by the force of the vacuum. Once this vacuum is formed, air is drawn into the barrel at a constant rate, regardless of the level of the wine inside the barrel.

The air that is drawn into the barrel percolates through the wine in a process called “micro-oxygenation.” (Micro-ox does all sorts of beneficial things to yourbwine, which is a whole ‘nother topic in itself.)

During this micro-ox process all the oxygen in this incoming air is bound-up bythe wine and/or the SO2 in the wine, which leaves only the non-bound, non-oxygen, gases remaining to form the headspace in the barrel.

Therefore, the headspace in a sealed barrel contains no oxygen and does not cause wine spoilage. In fact, when you top, you introduce air/oxygen into the headspace.

So when you do open a barrel for sampling/racking, make sure you top up the barrel to the very tip-top of the bunghole such that wine spills out when you insert the bung. That way you know there is no air/oxygen remaining from when you opened the barrel.


Our 2011 Holiday Cellar-bration was another terrific event. Thanks to Jill Crudup and the Cellar-bration committee for all their hard work!


'Gallery' Post | By on January 23, 2012

Over the Barrel – Ployphenic Phrenzy

By Robert Crudup

Oh, those wonderful Polyphenols, aka antioxidants. I never knew how much they meant to me.

We’re hearing all the time about the important health benefits they bring to life. And they are delivered right to my stomach in so many wonderful little packages. Here are a few of my favorite ways to capture all of Poly’s goodies: Honey is good and sweet, legumes not so much. I like cranberries at the holidays and cranberry juice with a splash of vodka has a nice ring.  Broccoli, cabbage, celery and onions all have a place at the table but often get out-voted in favor of chocolate and cherries.  I’m a fan of blueberries even though the skins tend to stick in your front teeth and make people look away thinking you’re from Oklahoma or something…which I really am anyway. Pomegranates are a lot of work but my wife used to make me drink that Pom juice which also might go well with vodka (just an idea though I’ve never tried it).  But when it comes down to my all time favorite way to ingest a hearty dose of polyphenolic fortitude, I prefer wine.  It’s beneficial aspects have been in the news but there is some little known information that I just need to share.

First, we all missed the 5th International Conference on Polyphenols and Health in Stiges, Spain.  I looked it up and its known as the St. Tropez of Spain and the postcard photo looks outstanding but I guess that is just the good part of the city. Who went? 700 people form 47 countries!  This is apparently a very big gathering of folks who are comfortable saying things like ‘biological pathways’ and ‘colonic bacteria’ while they look at posters depicting gut micro-flora and snack on the passed appetizers.  We need these people because they are the ones who make important discoveries.

Here is a good thing to know:  what you eat can affect how we digest phenols.  Just so you know, they take the measurements in samples of urine and, well, the other output as well.  But here’s the take away.  Humans excrete more phenols when eating tomatoes with olive oil than without.  If you are looking for a large antioxidant surge with a tomato salad, hold the oil.

The interesting thing that I learned about that conference is that the benefits of drinking wine were largely absent from the discussion.  Oh, I’m sure that at happy hour they were all jabbering away about the tasty wine they were drinking but the conference generally ignored what used to be a really big topic: Drink wine and live longer.  Yes, I know, “in moderation”.

But why?  What happened?  Well, there is a lot less research being conducted on wine because since 2000 the wine industry won’t fund it and the government avoids the topic of health benefits of alcohol consumption.  But, there is still plenty of research on all those other tasty things that we like to eat.  And almost all of them go very nicely with wine at a party! And a final tidbit for the carnivores in the group: one study showed that consuming wine phenols when eating meat reduced the lipid oxidation in the stomach and the toxic aldehydes in the blood.  Where’s the Beef ? (Remember Clara Barton?)

Well the whole topic has left me with a personal conflict.  The next conference is being held in Buenos Aires in 2013.  The next America’s Cup race is being held in San Francisco in…yup, 2013.  I’d love to go to Argentina to do a presentation on the health benefits of being a member of CellarMasters.  I mean, look at the foods that we put together for the monthly dinner meetings.  There are antioxidants all over the place and when mixed with some homemade wine we are living proof of the ‘French Paradox’ of how wine could prevent cardiovascular disease.

On the other hand, the Barbary Coast beckons. What could be better than sitting on the deck of my yacht anchored in the lee of Alcatraz Island  and watching the masters of the corporate world sail their boats in what is called the richest race on earth ?  And a wonderful meal of fresh Dungeness crab, sourdough bread, and a bottle of Pinot noir while would be hard to beat.  Oh, and on the heirloom tomato salad?  Please hold the oil.

December Wine of the Month: Vidal Blanc

Vidal Blanc is a hybrid of Ugni Blanc (vinifera) x Rayon d’Or (French American hybrid) and was developed by French breeder, Albert Seibel.

The grape can be made into a bone-dry, steely wine for fish, a barrel-aged wine reminiscent of a Fumé Blanc, or an ice wine that can rival the best dessert Rhine wines produced in Germany.

Flavors: Vidal Blanc is fruity with grapefruit and pineapple aromas and floral characteristics.

Color: The white grapes have large clusters of thick-skinned berries.

Notable regions: Northeastern US and Canada. Finger Lakes of New York State, many Mid-Western States, the Niagara Peninsula and as well as Ontario, Canada.

Viticulture: Vidal blanc is well suited to cold climates The grape is a mid-season ripener and has the ability to produce a good crop even with secondary buds.

Wine making: Vidal Blanc is one of the most versatile varietals in North America. It is used in a wide range of styles from light and crisp
with high acid to off-dry. It is used to make many late harvest dessert wines because its tough outer skin makes it adaptable to ice wine
and it’s acidity makes a good partner with wines containing residual sugar.

Food pairings: Vidal Blanc is a versatile white wine suitable for many cuisines including shellfish, salads, fruit and cheese platters, chicken dishes and vegetarian fare.

Ask Dave – Making Mead

Hi Dave,
I am in the process of making my first mead. I used
honey and water to make a 23 Brix batch (adding
only about a teaspone of Super Super Food). So
far, after 2 1/2 days, the yeast has reduced the Brix
by only 3; it’s down to about 20 Brix now. That’s a
lot slower than I’m used to with plain sugar. Is this
pace of fermentation normal for mead? I’m using
Cote de Blancs for my yeast.
– John Weisickle

Hi John!
Meads are known for slow and steady fermentation, so
just kick back and wait. Some stronger meads can take
*months* to go dry, even with a more aggressive yeast
than C