A 50 Year Tradition of Handcrafted Excellence
An Interview by Marguerite Striler
Cuba, MO is an unassuming little town about 1.5 hours southwest of St. Louis along Highway 44. The folks that live here are gracious, hospitable and as humble as pie. It’s a place where business is conducted by a handshake and your word means more than a contract. I visited Cuba, MO to interview Leroy and Ovia Marie McGinnis, founders of McGinnis Wood Products and makers of the finest wine and whiskey barrels in the world.
From 1895-1920, Cuba was the largest producer, processor and distributor of apples in the state of Missouri. The apples were shipped in barrels. Although the apple industry is long gone, barrel-making remains one of Cuba’s most stable and productive industries with McGinnis Wood Products being a leading manufacturer.
In 1968, Leroy McGinnis founded McGinnis Wood Products in Cuba, Missouri. The company started with a single building and eight employees manufacturing white oak staves (a single wooden plank attached side by side to make a barrel). Today, the company has grown to four buildings and 150 employees manufacturing the finest crafted wine and bourbon barrels in the world.
I turn off Route 66 to McGinnis Wood Products. Jack McGinnis greets me and we walk down the hallway to an office where Leroy and Ovia Marie are working. I take a seat and can’t help but stare at Leroy as he hen pecks at an old black typewriter with little round keys. Ovia Marie explains – he’s preparing invoices. Leroy types invoices then stacks them at the corner of his desk to be faxed at the end of the day to customers around the world. It was a step back in time.
McGinnis Wood Products is a multi-million dollar, international company, and all of the deals are secured with only a handshake. McGinnis comments, “We have a good arrangement – nothing on paper, just an agreement. The only deal we have is that when I ship, I want my money. When we ship 2 containers to Spain on Friday, we’ll have the money in the bank by Tuesday. In all my years in business, that hasn’t failed.”
I jump into Ovia Marie’s truck and she takes me for a ride through acres of stacked staves, piles of logs and mounds of wood scraps waiting to be picked up by Kingsford and made into wooden fire bricks among other things. Inside the main barrel factory, workers place together between 30 and 32 oak staves to create a single barrel. The barrels are transported on a line through a steam tunnel that heats the barrels as high as 200 degrees Fahrenheit to make them more pliable for steel rings to be added. At one station, an air pressure machine is used to test the barrel for leaks.
McGinnis has one of the largest inventory of air-dried wood in the United States and possibly the largest inventory of air-dried white oak in the world. The demand for wine barrels made of Missouri white oak (Quercus alba) is everincreasing, and McGinnis is the top supplier of this commodity. “They’ve got the number one wine barrel in California.” Leroy proudly states, “We have barrels all over the world and do a lot of business in Japan, Spain, Australia, Hungary, Scotland and France to name just a few.” McGinnis barrels are in cellars in every reach of the world.
So, why Cuba, Missouri? Ovia Marie credits Missouri’s rolling hills, poor soil, rocky ground and the four seasons for producing the quality oak that makes their barrels so popular. “With the hills here, the trees grow more slowly, and there are less pores in them,” she said, describing the watertight wood. “It’s a tighter grain.” She notes that French and Hungarian oak are porous, which creates leakage.
McGinnis Wood Products has grown to be among the largest cooperages in the country.