Visitors to Maison Ferrand in France’s Cognac region are usually astonished to come face-to-face with a polished wooden egg, easily big enough to hold a full-sized adult. Now, if you’re old enough to recall the 1970s sitcom staple Mork & Mindy, you know that Mork (Robin Williams) arrived on earth nestled within a giant white egg. However, Ferrand’s wooden egg holds something very different, and it’s not alone. A few kilometers up the road, another egg greets visitor in the lobby of Tonnellerie Taransaud, one of the many cooperages – tonnelleries –operating in the region.
The screech of wood meeting an industrial planer blade pierces the air. One by one, rectangular boards a meter in length meet their fate, emerging from the machinery just a bit more trim and shapely. A few meters away around a corner, huge balls of fire burst to life and subside, leaving behind the evocative smell of charred wood. The background accompaniment to the theatrics is the constant, arrhythmic clanking of metal hitting metal, hammers striking bands of steel. The scene is worlds away from the calm serenity that wine and spirits markets strive to convey in promoting their products.
Outside, it’s a sunny, blue-sky February morning in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. Federico Sanchez-Pece Salmerón, the director of Communications for Grupo Caballero, has brought us to the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage, one of several that supply sherry producer Lustau with newly made casks for their sherry wines. The casks being constructed mere inches from us will soon hold sherry, but won’t reside in a place of honor within a sherry solera. Rather, their final destination is far away from Andalucia, where they were born here in the southwest of Spain. But we’ll come back to that later.