It’s kind of a man cave. Everything’s there for the guys: fire, expensive machinery, lots of sawdust and enough hammers to turn everyday frustrations into the vibrating sound of steel hitting steel. At the center of it all is George Voicu, weathered, clutching a cigarette, giving firm direction in a Romanian accent and wielding that hammer with the precision and strength of Thor.
The setting is the workshop of East Coast Wood Barrels, the only barrel makers on the East Coast, where business has been brisk since they started bending staves in 2012 to make containers in almost any size imaginable to age wine or gin or vodka made from prickly pear or jalapeños, as is the state of spirits in the artisanal age. Their barrels often end up holding beer, too, but usually on second use, when the wineries or distilleries are through with them.
This is the latest incarnation of Voicu’s career, one that started on his family’s farm in what was then the Romanian People’s Republic in the small town of Glodeanu-Siliştea. Then wooden barrels were the primary means of transporting any manner of goods from nails to wine; however, soon wine production would be taken over by Soviet co-ops. But Voicu’s grandfather had learned the craft when the farm was his own, and he made barrels with none of the advanced machinery East Coast Wood Barrels now employs. He broke down tree stumps using an ax, and he shaped the staves by hand. But he also did many things Voicu now does in his own workshop: He used only scraps from barrel making to fuel the fires that soften the wood enough to shape it and to toast the barrels’ interiors to soften oak’s natural tannins to more perfectly meld with wine as it ages. He also knew, after years of practice, when the wood was soft enough to bend to the confines of a steel hoop and when a barrel’s insides had reached what winemakers are looking for: light, medium, medium-plus or heavy toast. It’s like when you ask an experienced cook how they know when to stop cooking something. “When it’s done” is the usual answer.
At the center of it all is George Voicu, weathered, clutching a cigarette, giving firm direction in a Romanian accent and wielding that hammer with the precision and strength of Thor.
Soon the pressures of Communism had torn Voicu’s family apart. He watched relatives beat other relatives while taking their property for the state. The farm was no longer in the family, and he fled, a political refugee, with a wife and small children. He landed in New York and prospered by starting an electrical contracting company and a judo club, which drew from his experience as a member of the Romanian team.
One of those children was Andra, who arrived in the U.S. with her father when she was two and now runs her father’s contracting business. In 2013, she married Michael Georgacopoulos who struck up a friendship with Voicu. One night at dinner, Georgacopoulos says, Voicu remarked that it was common knowledge that many wine barrels sold as made with French oak were actually Romanian oak and that he had experience making barrels.
“He said, ‘Let’s start a business,’” says Georgacopoulos. And Voicu is not someone you say no to.
Georgacopoulos was already in the food import business; the two took over the warehouse space behind his office in Woodbury. They moved to bigger quarters—10,000 square feet—this winter in Medford.
This will allow them to ramp up production. Currently they can hand-make six to seven barrels a day using already cut slats from Romania. The men had to invest in two pricey saws, one that cuts the slats convex on one side, lengthwise, and concave on the other. The second saw tapers the ends of the emerging stave while making it concave crosswise.
It takes 23 to 25 staves to make a barrel. Voicu lines them inside a steel hoop until they self-support like a teepee. The hoops are hammered down as a winch uses a steel rope to make them tight. Here’s one instance when Voicu can tell when they’re tight enough by eye. More hammering. The half formed barrel is then placed around the scrap-fueled fire; it stands there, smoke rising from within, until the staves are pliable enough to fit them into a hoop at the other end. Once that happens, there’s more hammering; the barrel then goes back around the fire where it toasts until it’s ready. Heads finish the barrel, which is then filled with water to test for leaks. If it leaks, says Georgacopoulos, it’s broken down for the fires.
East Coast Wood Barrels will also be making barrels from American oak they’ve bought from a broker who buys from contractors that clear land on Long Island. Outside the warehouse, large stumps age in all weather. It will be two years before they can be broken down to make barrels. These are preferred for aging bourbon due to their high vanillin content.
Local wineries including Shinn Vineyard, Martha Clara, Palmer and the Old Field Vineyards are already customers. They prize the barrels for many reasons: they’re less expensive than imported barrels, they’re locally made and the company can be much more flexible by not requiring minimum orders and by being willing to make a barrel of any size or even a table.
One request they denied. Someone wanted a barrel bathtub for his man cave.
For a short video of Matt Furman on the job photographing for this story go here.