Sure, they’re not as rustic as barrels or as sleek as stainless steel, but concrete tanks are quickly becoming a preferred material for fermenting and aging in wineries across the Central Coast thanks to Micah Utter and his child- hood friend, winemaker Josh Beckett.
“A lot of people think concrete is a new material to wine,” says Utter, the owner of Vino Vessel, Inc. in Paso Robles. “The truth is concrete has been holding wine for hundreds of years in Europe, but we’re just now coming around to using it here.” Indeed, legendary producers in Bordeaux and Burgundy have consistently used concrete since their inception; and during the Cali- fornia wine revolution of the late 70s and 80s, several respected wineries had concrete tanks imported to model French winemaking methods. But it wasn’t until recently that wineries had the option to buy a domestic product to avoid shipping a four-ton tank from Europe.
“I’d been in the concrete business for about 10 years when Josh presented the idea to me to build a tank for his winery,” recalls Utter, referring to Beckett’s winery, Chronic Cellars. “He was hearing a lot of chatter about concrete from other winemakers and thought it could be useful. I’d known Josh a long time —we were surfing buddies from way back—so I put together a prototype for him out of an all-natural mix that we designed with the folks from CalPortland Company.”
“It was exciting to be a part of it with Micah from the experimental stage when we got the prototype,” says Beckett. “At Chronic, we felt a need to differentiate ourselves from the pack. We asked ourselves, ‘Why is our wine different?’ and this was the answer we were looking for. We’re a small company, so we could afford to take the risk.”
Since then, Vino Vessel has become the primary producer of concrete wine tanks in the United States, and interest is spreading. “We made 17 tanks for clients in 2009, and we’re already in talks to build another 17 this year—and it’s only Janu- ary! People are really excited about it and the word’s getting out,” says Utter. “We want to educate winemakers on it before they jump in, though, because it’s a bit of an investment. We think of it as another tool in their arsenal.”
Why concrete? One benefit is high thermal mass. Within thick concrete walls, a fermenting wine’s temperature rises and falls gradually, which is gentler on the wine. “The aromatics of a concrete- fermented wine are where I’ve found the biggest differences,” says Beckett. “It’s like night and day. The concrete doesn’t allow the fermentation to get too hot; it’s cool, consistent, and breathable whereas with stainless and plastic it’s not.”
That breathability also makes concrete an excellent alternative to oak. “It’s a lot like a barrel,” explains Utter. “Concrete is porous like wood—allowing oxygen to move naturally through the walls and soften the wine—but it doesn’t send any oak overtones on the flavor profile. It’s a neutral vessel, giving only the slightest hint of minerality. If a winemaker wants an oak presence, they have the option to blend in wine that’s been conventionally barrel-stored.”
When asked what he likes so much about Vino Vessel tanks, Booker Vineyards wine- maker, Eric Jensen, is honest. “It’s a purity thing. Cement does such a good job of showing a wine’s true terroir. Oak—even neutral oak—can mask those nuances, and stainless steel heightens the effect of acid in high-acid wines. Cement doesn’t do that. It doesn’t add or take away or mask the soil. It lets everything show.”
Jensen admits that he likes concrete’s effect on white wines so much that he’s decided to try it on a red this year, too. “I can’t explain exactly how these tanks make the wine so seamless and velvety on the mid-palate. But every time I’ve done a blind tasting with the same wine in oak, stainless, and concrete, the concrete tanks win every time.”
While Vino Vessel clients include local wineries like Booker Vineyards, Chronic Cellars, and Mer Soleil in Monterey, Utter’s concrete tanks are also appear- ing in acclaimed wineries outside the Central Coast like Caymus Vineyards in Napa. “More people are receptive to it, especially high-end producers up north,” says Beckett. “But having Micah nearby is a luxury for us because we get the service we need whenever we want.” When asked why he believes so implic- itly in Utter’s work, Beckett answers, “Because he’s so dedicated. Micah is self-made: everything he has, he has gotten for himself. I wanted to support him however we could because I knew if he was going to do it, he was going to do it right.”