Conference Preview: What is so Great about Oak?


Today we have a Conference Preview  about a session to be presented by Dr. Robert Sechrist. Robert’s session is titled “What is so Great about Oak”? Read on for some very interesting thoughts about oak–it is pretty impressive–and its impact on the flavor of wine and spirits.

I love oak.  It looks great whether it is furniture, paneling, ships, barrels or still in the tree.  I admire the lone oak standing tall amid a field for its symmetry, strength and perseverance.   I am not the only one. Ancient Celtic peoples of northern Europe were apparently the first to revere the oak for these same properties.

The Celts integrated the oak into their daily lives and their pantheon of gods.  Ancient Celts observed the oak’s massive growth and impressive expanse. They viewed oak as a cosmic storehouse of wisdom embodied within its towering strength.  To them the oak was to be honored for its endurance, and noble presence. Oak became broadly symbolic of the good side of human behavior.  The list of traits associated with oak is impressive: Life, Strength, Wisdom, Nobility, Family, Loyalty, Power, Longevity, Heritage, Honor, Humble beginnings, Patience, Faith, Endurance, and Hospitality.  Because of these traits, meetings between warring parties often took place in the shade of an oak tree.  These trees are commemorated.  In 1999, the Connecticut Charter Oak was pictured on the quarter. In 2004, Congress declared the Oak the national tree.


The traits attributed to oak are justified.  Oak is a keystone genus.  Wherever it grows it is the dominant species; depended on by numerous other plants, animals, and fungi for their lives.  Mistletoe grows parasitically on oak trees.  Can one imagine oak trees without squirrels?  Birds build nests in them and from their twigs.  Insects thrive amongst their branches.  Mosses and mushrooms often surround them.  The wild vines climb their branches.

The vine and the oak have much in common.  They are both prized by humans for their properties and practical uses.  Oak symbols are as common as vine and grape symbols in our society.  The vine is the symbolic plant of Mediterranean Europe and the oak the symbolic plant of Northern Europe.  Wine associated with Dionysus intoxicates drawing the god within.  Oak attracts lightening showing the power of the gods to rend and destroy the strongest living thing in the Celtic world.

Both oak and vine are native to the northern hemisphere in the 30 to 50 degrees of latitude band.  They are pollenated without the aid of insects.  The two genera are non-specialized and hybridize easily.  Where they grow, they are keystone species.  Tree and vine have experienced devastating invading insect infestations: Phylloxera attacking vines and the Gypsy Moth attacking oaks.  They both are sources of tannin.


We all know wine and spirits interact with oak to modify the flavors and aromas of the liquid. The modifications are difficult to pin down because each product employs just one of the oak options.  We are generally not privy to products from one vineyard, or batch, exposed to a variety of oak treatments.  In the upcoming presentation participants will taste corn whiskey made at the Disobedient Spirits Distillery in Homer City, Pennsylvania treated with two oak species (French & American) at three toasting levels (Medium, Medium+, and Heavy) each.  In addition, the same corn whiskey is treated with hickory, pecan, and mesquite woods to allow participants to experience the effects of non-oak woods.  There will, of course, be a white whiskey as a control.

Dr. Robert Sechrist, CSW earned his doctorate in Geography from Louisiana State University in 1986. That same year he joined the faculty at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He was originally was hired to develop and implement Geographic Information System courses, and in 1999 created and started teaching a new course—GEOG261: the Geography of Wine. Since then, Dr. Sechrist has taught the course over forty times, while focusing his academic research on the statistical and geo-spatial analysis of wine databases. Robert is the current chair of the Association of American Geographer’s Wine, Beer, and Spirits specialty group, and in 2012, began a “second career” as a craft distiller with the formation of Disobedient Spirits LLC. His session, “What is so great about Oak”? will be held on Saturday,  August 13, 2016 at 3:00 pm, as part of SWE’s 40th Annual Conference.







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