Why oak is like pie, and the problems with that

Granted that I actually made a cherry clafoutis for Independence Day, not a cherry pie, but the holiday brings pies to mind. Pie is about as uniquely American as oak is, which is to say, not at all: both were invented and widely used in Europe long before the continent across the ocean was a concern, but Americans nonetheless took them to new and overblown heights (butter-baked-in-butter crack pie/butter pie, anyone?)

Historic pie makes sense. Modern pie is an enigma. And that brings us to oak barrels for wine aging, because the same can be said of both.

It’s hard to say, but pie was probably invented as a stand-in for owning cookware. In a time of communal village ovens (and Romans), a sturdy paste of flour and fat could encase your stew for baking even if you didn’t have a pan to spare. You cracked open the pie, ate the insides, and fed the crust to the dog or the servants. At some point, cooks began to make the crust with human consumption in mind, and pie segued from helpful and decorative (think the 4-and-20 blackbirds song) packaging to food.

A scene in the Laura Ingalls Wilder book Farmer Boy sticks in my head as an example of what pie became. The country fair brings a generous table of fruit and custard and mince pies in spades, and the farm boy wants to have a slice of everything. By the time pie made it to the 19th c. farm family, it was clearly a good way to get plenty of calories into people, many of whom probably needed them.

We don’t. Everyone* making pie owns bakeware. Anything that makes sense as pie filling is even better sans crust (save for fillings that don’t make sense inside the pie in the first place; crack pie/butter pie, anyone?) Sweetened berries? Stewed apples? Pumpkin custard? Chocolate pudding? The crust is superfluous. Crusts are time-consuming to make. They’re calorically expensive. But, they look nice and some people are attached to the way they taste.

Replace “crust” with “barrels.” Barrels are very expensive. They’re heavy and hard to handle, subject to toppling in earthquakes, very hard to clean, and prone to contaminating good wines with bad yeast. We have plenty of other storage options. We’ve moved well, well past barrels for storing everything else, from nails to flour to pickles (hipsters excepted) that we once put in them. But, they look nice and a lot of folk have become attached to the way they taste, and so we keep rolling them out, like pie crust.

Yes, oak aging contributes more than flavor. Yes, oak’s breathable qualities, allowing wine to interact with oxygen in a minute and gradual way, are valuable and a royal pain in the engineering to mimic minus the barrel. But imagine that oak barrels were a new innovation instead of an old holdover. “New scientific innovation promises microoxygenation for better tannin integration, but costs thousands of dollars every year, adds days to your annual workload, and increases Brettanomyces contamination.” Would anyone buy it?

I appreciate the rounding and softening influence of oak in my reds as much as the next oenophile. I even like a wave of perceptible oak over the surface of a big-bodied chardonnay now and then. But I don’t like pie**. I think I hear the hypocrisy bell ringing in my ears, and I think it’s time to take oak alternatives more seriously.


*Impromptu midnight college bakers excepted. And me, when I first came to New Zealand and made pumpkin galette instead of pie for Thanksgiving because I’d been in the country three weeks and didn’t own a pie plate yet.

**Really. Ask my poor pie-starved husband who very patiently puts up with crisps, cobblers, and clafoutis.


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