I’m learning that for every task that might otherwise sound like a detail to an ear outside the winery, there accompanies with it a massive amount of work, technique, safety checks, and expensive equipment to maneuver that are heavy and large in size. (If my sisters saw me brandishing some of this stuff they’d probably be sitting by on the sidelines with their hands over their eyes while slightly giggling at the same time.) Today, I learned all about handling equipment to clean barrels correctly and safely so as not to cause a barrel to explode or give myself a face steam I’d never forget.

Before Ed got me trained up on this task, I asked him how he could tell if a barrel was still good or if it was ready to be retired. He told me that you decide this by the smell of the inside of a barrel, not necessarily its outside. So even if a barrel has black mold on the outside, it doesn’t mean that its insides have been impacted. In fact, he had me put my nose inside the bung hole of a barrel that I thought might be questionable, and sure enough, it smelled absolutely beautiful and fresh, as if fruit was inside it, even though it was empty of course.

The process and timing of barrel cleaning is VERY meticulous and must be watched carefully because while there’s a little give or take on the timing of some of the tasks, there is one associated with this procedure that must be exact. When you decide on the rack of barrels you wish to clean, you must pallet jack them into position over the floor drain strips and then hand rotate/roll the barrels in their rack setting so that the bung is facing the drain.

The first thing you must do is to pull the bung out slowly so as to allow built up lees drain out. This looks like a big pink splat on the floor. After the bulk has drained, you rotate the barrel counter clockwise just a bit so that it’s easier for you to insert the wand for power washing up inside the bunghole. Once that’s been inserted and locked into place, you turn the valve to your left to begin the first stage of power washing for 7 mins, until the water goes from pink to clear. Then you pull the wand out and rotate the barrel back so that all remaining lees drain out. Hose off the rack so that it’s free of any lees drippings (always, clean as you go!) and then pallet jack that rack out of the way and over to the area where you wish steam.

A steamer is the most efficient and “greenest” way to clean and maintain barrel health/longevity. You’re more likely to kill off any lurking bacteria and you save a hell of a lot of water by not filling the barrel with gallons of hot water. It’s also a time saver. To steam, first warm up your motor on your steam generator and once it goes silent, it’s ready to begin building up steam pressure. Once this heats up to around 30 deg, you’re ready to steam. Needless to say, it’s probably always best to get this machine up and running before you plan to use it as it takes some time to ready it.

For this process, you’ll need a bung. Be sure you select one that has been hit with Cleanskin and then hose that solution off with water. Wherever you set it, keep your bung upside down on its head so that its underside never comes in contact with another object. The timing of steaming is very particular, but the bung timing is the most important part to watch. To steam, insert the long, heavy wand into the bunghole. Do not handle any part of the wand beyond the wooden handle as its insanely hot. It’s so hot in fact that it’s the one tool that can rest on the winery floor without fear of anything contaminating it. At 212 deg, nothing’s gonna survive on that thing.

Once inside the hole, set a stopwatch for 8 mins. After that, remove the wand carefully and insert into the next barrel and quickly take the readied bung and screw it in to the hole, keeping it there for 5 mins – NO MORE. NO LESS. Once that time is up, unscrew the bung slowly and with good grip due to the sucking pressure of the steam and wait for a terrific screeching sound of pressure release. Obviously, unscrew the bung away from your person and especially your ears.

The more or less dangerous part of this steaming process is now over and you just need to power wash once more for 2 mins to clean out any remaining lees or bacteria released by the steaming. Once a rack of barrels is clean, pallet jack it out of the way and allow excess water to drip out. The trickiest part of all of this is that you once get two racks (4 barrels) going with either steaming, bung hole pressure building, or power washing, you’re constantly watching the time to see where each task is at for each barrel and you’ve got to stay on the ball because it’s a merry-go-round ride that never lets up until all barrels have gone through these steps.

One of my favorite things about this process was the smells and sounds. I love the intense hissing/screeching that came from the bung hole during release and the aroma of the barrels as they steamed was so lovely. The steam actually awakened the toast of the wood, reviving intoxicating smells of caramel and spice and also fruit that was from a previous barreling. Those were some pretty amazing moments. I’m so glad there’s hauntings inside barrels.