Developing old technology
When Jake and Josh Beckett started researching new winemaking techniques for their new winery, Chronic Cellars, a little over a year ago, they came across a new trend in France: the use of fermentation tanks made of concrete.
Instead of contacting the French producers of those tanks, however, they called an old high school friend and surfing buddy, Micah Utter.
“They said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to check out these new concrete wine tanks,’ ” Utter remembers. “So we did some homework on the Internet, and here we are today.”
Where Utter is today is at the beginning of what may be the future of his business. He launched Vino Vessel Inc. just last year, making his first two tanks for the Beckett brothers and has since booked orders for several other local wineries.
He has just launched a national ad campaign for his products — the only such products made in the U.S. — and his tanks have just been written up in Wines and Vines, a national wine industry publication.
The idea of fermenting wine in concrete, rather than tanks traditionally made of stainless steel or oak, at first sounds odd. They are large, heavy, behemoth-looking creatures, poured in various oval, cube and pyramid shapes. One is even named “Hippo” after the large, squat animal it resembles.
Even though the idea is new to wineries here, it is not a new concept. “It’s old technology that’s been in place for a long time, but with stainless steel coming into fruition, it phased out,” Utter says.
Utter learned everything he needed to develop the line of tanks, ranging from a few hundred gallons to over 8,000, online.
Although his company has in the past poured foundations and driveways, his experience with concrete helped him develop a special concrete mix that is both non-toxic and untreated by chemicals.
The tanks are prized for their temperature control, but they also have some qualities that stainless steel doesn’t have thanks to the porous nature of concrete.
“You’re not really going to get a flavor from it, but it makes the fruit stand forward more and become more of a clean tasting wine,” Utter says.
Utter understands the needs of winemakers, because he is one himself. Making wine in his garage for the last several years, he says, has helped him in the design of the tanks.
“I can’t even imagine doing this without having some basic knowledge on how the whole process works,” Utter says. He is also planning a line of tanks for home winemakers.
He developed his first prototypes for Chronic Cellars — two 300-gallon tanks, one for white, one for red. He has since produced tanks for Booker Vineyards and Caymus in Napa, and he has orders for JC Cellars and Epoch Wines. Justin Vineyard & Winery is also experimenting with the tanks, having ordered them from France before Vino Vessel was in full production.
With a product line that includes four standard sizes, he also can customize the tanks to meet a wide range of needs.
In addition to drains molded into the concrete for racking, draining, tasting and pressure relief, heating and cooling plates can also be installed.
Depending on the size, most are made in Utter’s 2,500-square-foot production facility off Ramada Drive in Paso Robles.
He can also pour the larger tanks on site, a necessity for some that can measure up to 16 feet wide and weigh well over 10,000 pounds.
Starting at about $5,000 for his smaller tank, up to $10,000 for his 970-gallon model, the cost of concrete is slightly higher than its stainless steel counterpart, but the tanks have a life span of up to 15 years.
One disadvantage to the tanks is their weight.
“They’re definitely not portable,” Utter says.
Although the smaller units can be moved with a standard forklift, the larger models generally stay permanently in place once Vino Vessel delivers them with its industrial crane.
As he continues to develop new products, and focuses on getting word out around the country about his company, Utter, 31, sees a huge future for concrete wine tanks.
“The way that the economy is and the way wine sales are today, whatever story you can tell to set yourself apart to sell your wine is where you want to be.”