Gina Shay sells wine barrels. She’s a certified sommelier. And she has immersed herself in the Michigan wine industry as an active member in the Michigan Wine Collaborative (MWC), dedicated to enhancing the sustainability and profitability of the state’s wine industry. Barrels are in some ways the unsung heroes of the wine process — not often discussed in consumer circles, but oh-so central to the process. Here, Shay offers some insight into her job and work with MWC.
Q. What types of barrels work best here in Michigan?
Shay: Michigan is a cool-climate growing region, meaning that we have fewer grape-growing days than warmer climates. After working for a California cooperage that was building barrels well-suited to Napa Cabs and Lodi Zinfandels, I started my own company in 2015 to provide Cadus barrels to cool-climate wineries that would play more of a supporting, structural role with a more elegant aromatic profile so that the subtler aromatic and flavor qualities of our grapes and fresh acidity could shine through.
Q. How are barrel designs changing?
Shay: Overall, barrel designs were developed as long ago as 100 BCE and have remained the same design for hundreds of years. Modern coopers focus instead on improving wood selection, seasoning methods, quantification of aromatic compounds, cooperage automation and production consistency, aroma/flavor consistency and faster integration options (so wines need less time to age and can be ready to drink — and therefore sell to consumers — sooner).
Q. You have experience in corks as well. Any thoughts about how the options there have evolved?
Shay: When I started selling closures in 2002, my company only sold natural corks and technical corks (cork granulate held together by adhesive and extruded into a cork shape and with cork disks on either end). Later on, we offered natural corks, technical corks, synthetic closures and screw caps, which was a huge relief. I believe that there’s not one perfect closure for all wines, but that each wine should have a closure that fits its price point, target audience, winery budget, marketing profile and average consumption timeframe. If I owned a winery, all of my wines would be closed with a screw cap — with a few exceptions that would be closed in high-end, TCA-screened natural cork.
Q. Why did you get involved with the Michigan Wine Collaborative?
Shay: Having worked in emerging regions my whole wine career, I am passionate about the “wine outside of California” narrative. Many areas on the East Coast and in the Midwest make very acid-driven, food-friendly wines (which I love to drink!) whose only problem is that the rest of the country doesn’t really know about them. I chair the Membership and Communications Committee, so our job is to spread the word about not only the Michigan Wine Collaborative to interest new members and maintain current members, but to help elevate awareness and perception of Michigan wines in general.
Q. What do you see ahead for the Michigan wine Industry?
Shay: A lot of potential! There is already a shortage of wine grapes vs. wine demand in our state. Any budding (pun intended) grape farmers out there? My hope is that sommeliers and restaurateurs will continue to discover the food-friendliness of our cool-climate wines so that they want to include them on their wine lists. I’d also like to see us gain more traction nationally and internationally, but it’s important to convince the people in our own backyard first since the wineries depend heavily on tourism and foot traffic into their tasting rooms.