Olive-curing barrels repurposed as wood paneling
Photo: Anthony Tieuli
No forests were plundered to manufacture this hallway's lustrous redwood paneling. Instead, the owner of this house sourced the rare, insect- and moisture-resistant boards from TerraMai, a California millworks that gives woods salvaged from dismantled buildings, bridges, and, in this case, olive-curing tanks, a second chance.
They're so deceiving. It's a stretch to imagine these fat-bellied wine barrels, tinged by the cabernet or zinfandel that was aged inside them, as having any potential as kitchen flooring material or living-room paneling. Their stained, curved staves don't offer the kind of almost-ready-to-install ease that timbers salvaged from a historic house or weathered outbuilding do. Yet the quality and age of the forest giants that coopers used to build these casks—cedar, oak, mature Douglas fir, and increasingly rare redwood—makes the seemingly humble vessels far too valuable to waste.

In fact, old barrels and tanks offer some of the highest-grade lumber currently available: Each stave is free of knots, because even one knot would have meant leakage. And the strong quartersawn boards have the tight, moisture-resistant grain of slow-growing trees harvested between 90 and 120 years of age—placing them in a league above the 45- to 60-year-olds typically culled for building lumber today. Long used to make barrels, casks, and floor-to-ceiling tanks designed to cure olives, steep pickles, age whiskey, and, famously, impart flavor and richness to fine wines, the reclaimed boards maintain the subtle marks and ¬≠aromas of the former cargo.

In California alone last year, more than 200,000 of the vintage oak barrels used to age the region's celebrated vinos were retired from duty. Most of them were either halved to become planters at the end of suburban driveways or, worse, turned into kindling. But not every retired oak barrel or out-of-work redwood olive tank is doomed to an undignified end. Recognizing their value as high-grade raw materials, lumber reclamation companies have begun to seek out, dismantle, dry, remill, and reuse old barrels, casks, tanks, and vats for use as one-of-a-kind flooring, decking, architectural moldings, and any number of wine-cellar accoutrements. "The tight grain of the wood, the patina created during the aging process, and the cooper stamps on the boards have all left a legend revealing where this wood has been," says Rick Merwin, president of Fontenay, a wood-reclamation company based in California's Napa Valley region. It's the sort of history that appeals not only to wine connoisseurs but to everyone who appreciates the kind of character that can only come with age. —NR
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