In a nondescript warehouse tucked into Ames’ east side industrial area, the faint smell of red wine lingers in the air alongside wood stain.
In this room, Mark Bowers and Diane Johnson have amassed a bevy of retired wine barrels. Within the next several months, all of those barrels will become chairs or tables or lazy susans.
Bowers and Johnson are the husband and wife duo behind Barrelly Conscious, a small operation turning wine barrels into furniture.
Barrelly Conscious started out around five years ago, when the couple saw wine barrel furniture in California with finishing they didn’t like. Instead of making a custom order, they decided to make the furniture themselves.
They began with six barrels and made furniture just for themselves. After getting some interest from friends and family, they lept into making furniture to sell.
Since then, they have mainly sold their wares at the Ames downtown farmer’s market, at various craft shows in the midwest and by custom order.
The furniture they produce is mostly chairs, tables and stools, but they have also experimented with making custom vanities. Every piece has two uniting features: the legs and backs maintain the curvature of the barrels, and the color of the wine is stained deep into the wood.
The only flat part of each piece comes from the lid, bearing identifying marks from the winery it came from. One barrel’s lid reads “Francis Ford Coppola Winery.”
The two can identify if the barrel carried pinot, cabernet, merlot or other types of red wine just by the richness of the color in the wood. The wine’s flavor profile even makes it way out of the wood while it’s being processed.
“I get them when I’m sawing them, when I go through them,” Bowers said. “You pick up vanilla, or cinnamon or popcorn.”
The company mainly sources their barrels from Johnson’s brother-in-law, a wine producer for several labels and his own Bougetz Cellars label. Three times a year, the couple drives their trailer from Ames to Napa to spend time with family, drink wine and stock up on retired barrels.
After bringing them back to Iowa, Bowers and Johnson break down the barrels and begin the process of sanding, staining and assembling them into furniture. They estimate a single chair could take between five and nine hours of labor to produce, while other pieces can take upwards of 10 hours to make.
A lazy susan runs around $125 to $150, while a chair could set a customer back $500 to $600 depending on the intricacy of the design. Bowers and Johnson estimate they’ve produced around 100 chairs and 40 pub sets. The sell about two lazy susans a week, they said.
However, the ongoing fires in California’s wine country could pose a risk to the supply of barrels from Napa. Johnson said her brother-in-law’s winery is in the middle of two large fires currently burning in California. Johnson said her family is safe right now, but the winds are picking up and growing ever threatening.
She said her brother will keep making wine even if the worst happens, as he still produces for other winemakers. The duo can also get used barrels from other producers.
“There will be barrels,” she said.
Bowers has spent over 30 years in the residential remodeling business, while Johnson owns a landscaping business. Bowers said while they do make a profit off the furniture, it isn’t enough to support them.
So, for the foreseeable future, Barrelly Conscious will remain the couple’s side hobby, albeit a labor-intensive one.
“This is our second full-time job,” Bowers said with a laugh.