Master Cooper Eric Fourthon is well-known in the Canadian wine industry, as his hands have shaped the barrels for the finest cellars of British Columbia and Ontario, as supervisor of Okanagan Barrel Works and proprietor of private label Ceres. To get a better idea of why Fourthon is a cooper of repute, The Field Guide caught up with him at his workplace Okanagan Barrel Works in Oliver.
Q: When did you start making barrels?
A. At the age of 14 I joined the trade organization “Compagnons Du Devoir” in France and began my apprenticeship and the journey toward Master Cooper. In becoming a Master, I worked in 21 different cooperages, in Europe, South America, China, and South Africa. Since the age of 18 I have held a position in production management, and have been responsible for day-to-day production, organization, and quality control on both barrels and tanks. It’s a vocation that probably came from my family; my grandfather was the Master Cooper for Chateau Maucaillou in Medoc.
Q: What makes the barrels you make for your private line Ceres special?
A: The barrels are custom made 100% French oak. Each one is designed specifically for a winery, resulting from direct consultation with a winemaker. The relationship with the winery lasts for years, and the barrels are constantly evolving to develop a profile that suits their particular wines. There are many variables to consider--wood origin, wood maturity, thickness, toast, shape, and size--meaning that every barrel is unique.
Q: What innovations do you see in barrel-making?
A: Some examples of innovations are real time tannin analysis, toast sensors, and fully automated barrel toasting. These are fantastic advancements if used carefully, but they do not negate the decline in quality from overproduction.
Q: How have you seen the wine industry changing in the Okanagan Similkameen?
A: In the 6 years I've been here, I've seen some good changes in the local wine industry. Wine education is improving. We also see more and more foreign winemakers coming our way, in addition to international stagiaires. This means that BC is finally on the international quality map for professionals looking to get experience that matters on a resume (stagiaire) or quality positions with opportunities (winemakers). There are also a lot of new wineries starting with very interesting product and maybe more focus than 10-15 years ago in terms of what they plant and the quality they’re seeking.
Q: If Okanagan Barrel Works was based in France, and not Canada, how would it change the perception of your barrels to Canadian wineries?
A: If OBW was based in France, the job of selling would be easier. Even though we make high quality French and American Oak barrels, we are still competing against better-known French cooperages that have the benefit of their history, and get to play the romantic French card. It means that we have to work harder to prove ourselves! It’s just part of the game; we have to continue to improve on quality and make sure local wineries know who we are and what we do.