It has been several weeks since Micah Utter was gracious enough to spend some time with me. I should apologize for taking so long to getting this posted on "Vinewright" but I've been off the grid doing some travel. All I have to say about that is, if you plan to fly - pack a big lunch for all those delayed and cancelled flights.
I recently read about a revival of the use of concrete wine making vessels by some very toney Italian small lot producers. Well, it turns out they aren't the only makers of excellent wines who are riding this wave. Pun intended, since Micah is a surfer who also happens to know a lot about custom shaping of concrete. I heard about him and his Vino Vessel, Inc. (www.vinovessel.com) operation, located on the south side of Paso Robles, during the WiVi trade event that was described here a few articles back.
So, Through the Grapevine sent its intrepid reporter (moi) to get an exclusive on this cutting edge idea. Little did I know that several equally edgy and innovative winemakers have embraced the concept. Small batches of some very nice wines are sleeping peacefully here on the Central Coast and other growing areas, wrapped up like Jimmy Hoffa!
Currently, Vino Vessel has designed and produced forms for eleven various fermenting and storage tanks as an alternative to wood barrels. While not inexpensive (they require extensive design and engineering input), the better oak versions of barrels topped $1,000 each a few years back. Stainless steel storage vats, and certification for fabrication techniques also makes for a serious outlay of capital. You may know that many smaller producers actually rent tank space for storage for larger wineries with excess volume, rather than purchasing those high ticket items. It has been reported that wineries plan to put a large part of winery improvements into increasing that aspect of their facilities in 2013. There are even some tank farms that simply offer a place to keep the juice as a sideline of the wine industry.
Micah's available containers are sized from 70 gallons up to 1,305, coming in an interesting mix of shapes and concepts. The company has the ability to design custom enclosures for nearly any idea with which a winemaker might wish to experiment. But it is hard to imagine a shape or size that isn't available other than bigger versions for larger producers. Examples include a pyramid and the "hippo" model, one of two oval styles, which maximizes the surface area that comes in contact with the wine. Specifically, that relates to skin contact, the more juice surface that is exposed to the cap - primarily grape skins that form a layer when forced to the top of a tank by CO2 during fermentation - the better the extraction of tannin and color. Ideally, if impractical, a large flat shallow pool would work very well.
The hippo idea was the first style built and beta tested by Peachy Canyon and Chronic Cellars in 2007. It required some special engineering, a special formula for the concrete mix and curing process and, inclusion of reinforcing mesh. The result led to new design ideas and sales that have grown to include local wineries such as Linne Calodo, Epoch and Stolpman.
The Vino Vessel allows micro-oxygenation, a neutral (no extraction) flavor component that helps in the expression of the fruit and are easy to clean and sanitize. "There is no food in concrete", Micah quotes one user. Thus, the tanks are not prone to aid unwanted critters making a home in them. Concrete also has excellent thermal retention, avoids hot spots found in some upright styles, offers a slow rise in temperatures and needs no temperature controls such as those on jacketed stainless tanks.
While not in widespread use, use of concrete as a winemaking option is on the rise and works well for small operations and those liking to try new concepts and experiments. If you have the opportunity, try a wine made in a Vino Vessel and see what you think. In Paso Robles one easily found example is the 2011 Viognier at the Peachy Canyon tasting room at W46 and Bethel Rd. You may also inquire at Chronic Cellars if they have a current sample done in a Vino Vessel.