In fact, it wasn’t until around the 1960s that oak flavor became important! Some time after that we began to see the first references to “new French oak”. And, of course, now there’s so much focus on oak flavor these days that it’s easy to forget the main reason we still use barrels: Aging! The color, aroma and flavor of the wine changes due to very slow aeration inside the barrel. New Cabernet looks a lot like Welches Grape Juice and smells pretty grapey too. With time in the barrel the primary fruit aromas evolve into something a bit more subtle and complex. An initially clumsy mouth feel gains finesse.
In California, we aged and stored most of the wine in redwood or concrete tanks until stainless steel and small cooperage came into the picture. Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma is credited as the first California winery to use French oak to age their wine in the 1950s. They were followed by Heitz Cellars in the 60s and, as they say, the rest is history! More about oak aging