The master cooper, Ralf Mattern, is one of the lucky few who has made his hobby into his vocation. He manufactures wine barrels with a passion. But one thing is a constant source of concern. What if one day a barrel fails? Or no one likes it? What if one day the telephone rings and a voice asks: What have you done with that barrel?! “The world of wine is relatively small”, knows the barrel maker. Good news travels fast. And bad news even faster. “There’s no way but this way”, says the master cooper, Ralf Mattern, in his local dialect. He heaves a heavy wooden barrel up to chest height and gently slides it onto the loading surface. Why did he recently change vehicle brands? “If I want to offer my customers the best possible product, then I also need the best possible vehicle to deliver it. That is my calling card.”
For the last three months he has delivered his wine barrels with a Sprinter. Once he was greeted at an exquisite Vineyard with the words: “Thank you, but we do not need scrap”, says the man from Rhineland-Palatinate with a loud laugh. Ralf Mattern loves to laugh. Most of all about himself. But: when it comes to his job he never makes any compromises. In those days, his presentation did not match the standard of his own work: “It is always two steps forward and never a step back.” That’s what my business plan says and that’s the way I am.” Now his claim to quality is as clear as saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’. When it comes to Ralf Mattern, these two are definitely worth mentioning. Because he is either a truly gifted actor who has somehow wound up in the Palatinate wine country on his way to Hollywood or he is truly serious about what he says. His barrel manufactory in Hassloch provides plenty of proof for the latter. Ralf Mattern now manufactures wooden barrels with two full-time employees and two apprentices. Yet only 3 1/2 years ago a local bank regretfully turned down his loan application. Neither his master craftsman’s diploma nor 10 years of professional experience, nor a business plan and not even his national champion title helped. A second attempt. A second bank. Success. Since then the barrel manufactory has fulfilled vintner’s orders, both big and small. With a 600 liter or 20,000 liter barrels, Ralf Mattern and his men can make it. Today, wine barrels Made in Hassloch can be found in cellars in Germany, Italy, France, Chile…
Wine barrels are more than just containers. They refine the wine. Just like the man who makes them is more than just a tradesman. He needs to be able to hear the voice within the wood. Because the barrel material has a critical influence on the quality of the wine itself. Before the oak is made into staves – the individual pieces of the barrel – Ralf Mattern examines its history. “Oak that grows in dry ground delivers good wood. It grows slowly, has narrow growth rings which make the wood denser and easier to work with. But the age of the wood and the length of time it is stored are also critical factors for the quality of the wine barrels.” The cooper knows the origins of all of his wood. When walking across the yard he stops briefly and points to a tower of dark wooden staves: “Palatinate oak, three years old, cut during a full moon just before Christmas.” Admittedly, this makes a visitor take a skeptical look around. Garlic cloves? Wooden crosses? Dried chameleons? No chance! The last bit of suspected occultism is banished by scientific insight. “Very few parasites and low moisture content.” This wood simply has the best properties for making barrels.
The fine flavors are critical to ensure that the wine in the barrel takes on the desired character. Sometimes the master cooper has to wait as long for the feedback as the vintner waits to mature his wine.
Up to 70 staves are matured in the workshop and then prepared for the barrels. The staves have to be heated so that they can be bent. The bottomless barrel is moved into the yard with a forklift and positioned over an open fire. But it is not just about flexibility. Toasting the wood, the time it spends on the fire and the temperature all have a major influence on the way the wine matures in the barrel. “It is a bit like coffee…”, murmurs the cooper. Ralf Mattern savours a roasted wooden chips on his tongue the way others would a piece of chocolate. “Nope, almost like Turkish coffee.” The fine flavors are critical to ensure that the wine in the barrel takes on the desired character. Sometimes the master cooper has to wait as long for the feedback as the vintner waits to mature his wine. Ralf Mattern’s phone does not ring until the noble wines have been bottled after years in the barrel. And when that voice says: “What have you done with that barrel?” then the perfectionists’ heart sinks in his boots for a moment. So far, he has only received praise and relief. And on his way to a tasting he has one less worry. Ralf Mattern has discovered: “With the new company car I can visit my customers’ wineries with a clear conscience.”