Concrete Strides for Fermenting Tanks

Concrete tanks find solid support from California industry.

Paso Robles, Calif. — Concrete fermenters have long been a staple of the European industry, as they were with the immigrant winemakers of the New World, but with the advent of oak barrels and stainless steel tanks, the market for them crumbled decades ago. In the past few years, however, some progressive makers of high-end wines rediscovered their advantages.

Last year concrete tanks in a variety of shapes and sizes became more accessible to the California market, when Artisan Barrels in Berkeley became an importer for Burgundy’s Nomblot line, and an established Central Coast concrete vendor to the construction industry began to manufacture them under the name VinoVessel.

Charles Thomas, longtime winemaker at Napa Valley’s Rudd Estate and now at Quintessa, is credited with starting the vogue when he and Delia Viader of Viader Vineyards shared the shipping costs on a container of odd-shaped concrete vessels from Nomblot (See “Concrete Fermenters: From Old School to New World,” Wines & Vines, November 2005). Thomas continued importing them until last year, when Artisan took over the Nomblot franchise. In his first year of selling them, Artisan owner Jérôme Aubin told Wines & Vines, the Nomblots accounted for about 15% of his business, which also includes oak barrels and stainless steel tanks.

The 150-gallon Pyramid from VinoVessel has a slanted base and front-access manway.
Advocates say that concrete preserves wine character, mouthfeel and volume by providing consistent micro-oxygenation like that of barrels. Concrete also has the advantage of maintaining temperatures through its inherent insulating characteristics. Aubin says that oak adjuncts can be used if desired.

Micah Utter, president and CEO of VinoVessel and its parent company, Advanced Concrete and Construction Inc., grew up on the Central Coast, was intrigued by the wine business, and was inspired to enter the field when prompted by Josh Beckett, winemaker at Paso Robles’ Peachy Canyon, who was looking for a local source for concrete tanks. Utter spent much of last year in research and development, and already has delivered and installed eight of his whimsically shaped and named vessels. They are made of raw concrete (no lining), the interiors plastered with slurry for a smooth finish. Each has a standard 21 x 16-inch manway in the front and at least a 16-inch manway on the top, for ease of access. VinoVessel recommends proxyclean or ozenator for sanitation: “Do not use hot water,” Utter cautioned, because the stainless steel fittings would expand and might cause cracking.

Stock VinoVessels range from the 150-gallon Pyramid to the 970-gallon Oval; depending on the model, they weigh between 4,500 to 10,000 pounds. VinoVessel provides delivery and installation for these heavyweights, which, Utter estimates, will remain serviceable, “with proper care, probably around 10 years.” If they become discolored or otherwise unsuitable for fermenting, he adds, they can be epoxy-lined for neutral storage, no longer porous but retaining concrete’s useful thermal properties.

Aubin points out that Nomblot has delivered as many as 18,000 tanks to wineries in Burgundy, and has had to replace only three since 1923, which hints at a much longer lifespan for concrete vessels. He points out, too, that the current, smaller models, although by no means portable, can be moved if necessary, unlike old-style “poured-in-place” tanks.

Utter mentions that, due to many wineries’ concerns with aesthetics, he was “Shooting for an appealing, attractive look.” In addition to the fanciful but practical shapes he concocts, he’s also been exploring decorative concepts including staining the exterior to provide color while retaining porosity, and sandblasting logos or other devices to customize the tanks. “I’d like to try making some that look like simulated rocks for wine caves,” he says hopefully.

Because of his roots in earthquake-vulnerable California, Utter has also developed “seismic-friendly” legs to safely elevate the tanks.

Prices for VinoVessels start around $5,300USD, depending on size and options. Artisan’s price list starts at $5,051 USD for a 158-gallon “egg” tank. Utter says he can deliver a VinoVessel in about eight weeks; Aubin advises that California vintners order Nomblots for this year’s vintage within the next two weeks.

by Jane Firstenfeld