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Concrete fermentation tanks for wine have been around for centuries

About a year ago I wrote a story about Delia Viader of Viader Wines in Napa. I was drawn to her story because of her passion for wine, the fact that she started from scratch and she was very innovative. It did not hurt that she is a very successful winemaker. One of her innovations was the use of concrete fermentation tanks that she brought to Napa from Europe. To this day she is a big fan of concrete tanks. But, now high quality tanks are made in the U.S.
Recently I had a meeting with some winemakers and overheard a conversation about concrete fermentation tanks and recalled the prior conversation with Delia and her experiences with concrete. Now my interest is piqued anew about concrete in winemaking. Concrete can be interesting, so let me tell you about Micah Utter who was the first in the country to make concrete tanks for wine. Nice, energetic guy who loves wine and concrete.

In the U.S., Micah Utter is the leader in designing and building concrete fermentation tanks for the wine industry. At 34 years old, born and raised in Central Coast Wine Country, he could be called the grandfather of concrete vessels for winemaking in the U.S. “Concrete has been around since Roman times and it has been used in the wine industry in Europe for several hundred years; but you are only seeing renewed interest in concrete in the U.S. wine industry within the last 10 years,” says Micah Utter – President of Vino Vessel, Inc. The serious popularity of concrete with Napa, Sonoma and Central Coast wineries has just hit its stride within the past 5 years. This in part is due to the VP-Marketing who happens to be Lacey Utter, Micah’s wife. “We have been making concrete wine tanks for about 6 years, the first in the U.S., and in 2011 we will see a 100% increase in sales,” said Utter. That equates to about 50 tanks being sold in 2011.

Micah started in the concrete business 14 years ago, right in the middle of California’s Central Coast wine region. He became interested in creating unique designs using concrete at his first job. Within 2 years he started his own business. That is when a surfing buddy, who had just started a winery, came to Micah with the idea of building wine fermentation tanks from concrete. After a lot of research with wineries in Europe and assessing how winemakers were utilizing concrete tanks in California, it seemed that there was a market for his new concrete tanks. “But, it proved to be a difficult start because we had to educate ourselves and our potential clients, i.e. wineries, on the benefits of concrete relative to their wines,” said Utter.

By the way, concrete is not called cement by the informed. I was told politely that cement is used to make concrete which is much stronger than cement by itself.

There are about 17 wineries in Napa and Sonoma that are currently using concrete fermentation tanks. Concrete tanks have been around Napa for more than 50 years. But until about 5 years ago modern tanks came from France. Some big name winemakers and winery owners have stepped forward in the last 8 years to really promote the benefits of concrete tanks. People like Tim Mondavi, Delia Viader, Charles Thomas, and a few more. Now Vino Vessel, Inc. is the premier provider. An environmentally friendly product made in the USA. Today they have sold tanks in Georgia, Washington,Oregon and New York and internationally they have customers in New Zealand. There are approximately 40 wineries in the US using concrete tanks. Recently, Saxum Wines received a 98 point award for one of their wines fermented using concrete tanks. Others using concrete tanks include William Seylem, Kosta Browne, Flora Spring, Mark Herold Wines, JC Cellars, Edmund St. John.

Micah has recently delivered 2 concrete fermentation tanks to a winery in Napa; each weigh 13,500 pounds and hold 1,500 gallons each. Cost of tanks are hard to define, however, as a rule of thumb, you can expect to pay $1,500 to $10,000 for a new tank with hardware. However, there is nothing standard about concrete fermentation tanks, each one is made to order. Vino Vessel features 7 styles or rather shapes and they can be built in almost any capacity/size. In 2012 they expect to deliver 70 tanks for wine making; some outside of the U.S. Most interestingly is the fact that 2011 saw a 100% increase in units sold over 2010. That means 2011was a 50 tank year.

“If concrete tanks weren’t worthwhile you can bet I would not be around,” said Utter. “But the results are documented and even include some blind tastings of wines fermented in concrete, stainless steel, wood vats and oak.” If a winemaker wants the nose and texture of oak then oak is obvious. On the other hand concrete, when done properly, is made of clean, natural materials that are controlled throughout the process. One thing oak and concrete have in common is that both allow oxygenation of the wine; both materials are porous.

Cement doesn’t add or take away or mask the soil. It lets everything show. I would like to get James Laube’s comments some day on concrete. Now that would be interesting.

The process of making a tank entails 8 steps. The first step being to determine the desired capacity and shape, then commit that to a computer model that will calculate dimensions, weight and pressures. Next, step is to select accessories such as leg support styles, front or top ‘manways’, coils for heating and cooling, valve placements and do you want an open top or closed. Third step is to hand-build the mold per computer design specs. At this point (step four), specially formulated concrete is mixed and laid-up by hand onto the mold. After this process is completed it takes approximately 3 days for the concrete to cure. In the fifth step the mold is disassembled from the inside. Finishing and slurry coating the inside and outside of the vessel is next, followed by step seven which is adding the hardware accessories. The last step, number eight, is the quality testing and preparing the tank for shipment anywhere in the world. From start to finish these processes results in a tank, ready for shipping, in 4 to 6 weeks. And the advantages are affordable wine storage units, easy to clean tanks and a long lasting product.

One added feature I should mention: to ensure the terroir is imparted to the wine, Micah ask that aggregate from the vineyards be provided to him. This aggregate/stone will be crushed and used in making the concrete for the clients’ custom made tanks. Who knows how much it adds to the character of the wine, but at the least the tank is part of the terroir and the terroir is part of the tank…sort of a communing effect I would imagine. The mix of the concrete is a special proprietary mix designed by some true professionals and is free of any chemical additives.

Who would have thought that concrete was important to winemaking and a premier concrete designer, who is also a proud home winemaker, would be a Central Coast native?

by S. C.
16 december 2011, World News > America

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