Organolepticians Number 78
For hundreds of years, countless winemakers throughout Europe have vinified their grapes in concrete. It’s a material that, when formed into a large vat, or tank, is sufficiently thick so that its thermal mass will counter the heat generated by a fermentation, keeping the rate of ferment relatively slow and even, and permitting the retention of the aromatic compounds formed as the fermentation proceeds. The wines that result can be lovely, showing off all the finest qualities the grapes had to offer when they came off the vine.
When European immigrants from winemaking cultures settled the temperate regions surrounding San Francisco Bay in the latter part of the 19th Century and planted vines, and began producing wine, in many cases concrete vats became part of their cellars. What worked so well in the Old Country became the model here for quite some time. Other materials also came into play in many cellars; as they had done in Europe, wooden vats and barrels, too, became parts of the American vintner’s landscape.
The success of both concrete and wooden wine containers, in Europe and elsewhere, is predicated on making wine in them from healthy, ripe grapes, and exercising great care and attention to detail in the use and maintenance of these containers. Grapes that are not farmed properly, not harvested in optimal condition, and not processed in a careful and timely manner become potential sources for introducing microbial problems in any winery. By the same token, any equipment not diligently and meticulously sanitized invites similar challenges.
The advent of Prohibition in the US in 1919 resulted, for the most part, in the collapse of premium wine growing; hundreds of vineyards were abandoned or removed. Any subsequent planting, at that time, was done to varieties that could be shipped around the country on railcars to home winemakers. The farming was largely focussed on maximizing yields and tonnage. Thus the vineyards to which the wine business “returned” when Prohibition ended could hardly be called vineyards at all. The chances that wine of any innate quality might come from them were pretty slim.
Then again, perhaps the assumption was that after fourteen years of enforced “abstention,” the country was most likely thirsty, and, doubtless, for strong drink–quality be damned. Small wonder that for a generation after Prohibition, wine was generally not expected to taste very good. More and more, unsound grapes and inattentive processing became the norm, and domestic wine’s reputation sank like it was made out of concrete.
The appearance of modern technology in the arena of wine production, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, was readily embraced by vintners here in the U.S., as a way to leave the wretched aftermath of Prohibition behind, and find a new way forward to acceptance for wine in modern (20th-Century) American culture. With breathtaking speed, wineries throughout California adopted, especially, the stainless-steel tank, for fermentation, storage, and general utility, as the gleaming symbol of transformation. Concrete vats and tanks had become emblematic of an ugly past, best forgotten. In no time at all, they were gone.
There was no question that the shiny new stainless tanks could be thought of as a vast improvement, in terms of both hygiene, and protection against spoilage through exposure to oxygen. Given the disarray in which the wine business found itself after The Noble Experiment was thrown by the wayside, spoilage of wine from poor hygiene, and from oxidation, became almost unimaginably common. The problems were sufficiently rampant that, in trying to respond, the approach taken by the teaching institutions such as the University of California at Davis, which instructed the industry, became largely reactionary; i.e., if there was a technique available to remediate the worst-case scenario in the biological evolution of a wine, it should be used for every wine. Stainless steel became the only safe choice. For a while there, even new French oak barrels were considered pretty unsavory.
Interestingly, Europe never blinked. Oh, eventually quite a number of the wineries began to acquire stainless tanks; but they became part of an array of choices. Each material, from wood to concrete to steel, had properties that might play a role in the evolution of a particular wine, depending on the vintner’s response to the way said wine might evolve in contact with the material in question. Yet, to this day, some of the most prestigious wine addresses, from Pauillac to Pommard, from Chiroubles to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, from Alba to Aetna, still raise wines in concrete because it continues to work for them. Beautifully.
I began to sit up and pay attention about 20 years ago,when, over the course of a weekend, I tasted a few dozen wines which I found utterly inspiring, and subsequently learned they’d been vinified entirely in concrete! Beautiful wines, wines that took my breath away. Wines with tremendous freshness, exquisite texture, and endlessly seductive perfume, with delicious, precise, clean flavors that could both satisfy and provoke thirst.
At the time I made wines principally by fermenting in small bins and aging in rather old (having held more than 10 vintages) French puncheons. Concrete was not an option. I’d be surprised if there was anyone around at that time in California, who knew how to make that kind of tank.
Then in 2003, an old friend, and one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, who’d become the winemaker for a small, very prestigious Napa winery, imported a few French egg-shaped concrete vessels from a manufacturer in Burgundy. He vinified a portion of his white wine production in them, and liked the results enough that he began importing more of them. Now some of the most prestigious wine addresses in California are (once again) vinifying some wines in concrete.
Just couple of years back, in 2007, a pair of Paso Robles winemakers approached Micah Utter, a friend of theirs who operated a local concrete manufacturing and construction company, and asked him if he thought he could make wine tanks from concrete. They worked together to design a prototype, and when the first tanks were complete, and had been used to ferment and age a couple of different wines, they were so happy about the results that Micah started a second business which he called Vino Vessel, to provide American winemakers with a domestically produced set of options for making wine in concrete.
So this year, at last, I will have my chance to make some wine in a custom-designed Vino Vessel concrete tank. The grapes will be biodynamically-farmed Grenache and Syrah from Sonoma County. My hope is that the result will be something beautiful, along the lines of the wines I tasted 20 years ago. Pretty, fresh, seductive. The tank where this wine will take shape, and come to life, is a beast; it weighs nearly four tons. It’s not gleaming and cooly elegant, the way a stainless tank can be. It’s hulking. It’s from the Stone Age. Funny how that works.
Edmunds St. John
(And, now, Vino Vessel, too)