I think it's almost impossible to make great red wine without barrels. It's also impossible to make great red wine without great fruit.
Barrels are only useful if the fruit demands it and can handle it. It has to do with the structure of the wine and it's phenolic content. Most red wines that I've made I now look back on and wonder if the fruit was good enough to take advantage of the use of barrels.
There's nothing wrong with not using barrels. Most consumers probably think most wine is made in barrels. It's not. If you're paying less than $13 for a bottle of wine--which is the majority of wine in this country--chances are it never saw a barrel. The way the economics work, you can't sell wine in barrels cheaply. Most wines are made in tanks and have added oak chips for the flavor aspect, and then have oxygen microbubbled through the tank to simulate barrel aging. Again, nothing wrong with this, it's the reality of the price point.
Keep in mind that winemakers don't use barrels for oak flavors. It would be a whole lot cheaper and easier just to add oak chips or sawdust or oak flavorings. Most well-run wineries do. But if you're trying to make great wine, nothing replaces a great oak barrel. It's through the micro-oxygenation of the wine through the oak staves and the interplay of that oxygen with the tannins in the wine where the magic happens. Barrels are mostly for affecting the mouth-feel of the wine and more lifting the fruit. They are meant to be a nuanced spice, not a condiment.
Every region needs to find the correct type of barrel for its wines. Most great wines in the world use barrels where the oak is sourced from France. This is a cold-climate region where the trees grow slowly with a tight grain. The French oak barrels are known for their subtle flavors and ability to enhance wines from cooler climate regions (like Pennsylvania.) If I were to use American (or even Pennsylvania oak which I have done in the past) on my wines, they would be over-powered by the barrels (see the "condiment" comment....) At Allegro, we use almost entirely French oak barrels.
The only reason to use barrels other than French is a financial one. American oak barrels are $300-400 each. You can find Eastern European barrels for $500-600. Good French barrels usually run $1000 each. Now you know why wineries here in the east might not use French barrels.