Until recently, vintners had little choice when it came to oaking a wine. They simply placed the wine in an oak barrel and waited until the desired taste and aroma was achieved. About the only control they had was the type of oak used, the age and size of the barrel, and whether the barrel was charred (toasted) or not.
Vintners needed a lot of patience, because it took a while for large barrels of wine to take on the flavor of oak. This is because only a relatively small portion of the wine came in direct contact with the inside walls of the barrel. Worse yet, the older the oak barrel was, the longer it took to get the desired results!
Thankfully, some math whiz that happened to enjoy making wine at home figured out that instead of using a wooden barrel to surround the wine, why not let the wine surround small pieces of oak? Thus, oak chips, cubes, staves, and powders were born. These products allow the home vintner to achieve the same great oak flavor we desire - without the huge, costly barrels.