Home

Beauty In The Beast (The Baby and the Bathwater)

Organolepticians Number 78 (July 27, 2009)

 

Vino Vessel: The OvalFor 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.

Steve Edmunds
Edmunds St. John
(And, now, Vino Vessel, too)


Join the organolepticians!

organoleptic
(ôr'ge nl ep'tik, ôr gan'l ep'-), adj. 1. perceived by a sense organ. 2. capable of detecting a sensory stimulus. [1850-55; < F organoleptique = organo- ORGANO + -leptique < Gk leptikós disposed to accept (lept(ós), v. adj. of lambánein to take + -ikos -IC)]

--Random House Webster's
College Dictionary

The Edmunds St. John Dictionary of Etymological Arcana defines organoleptics broadly and simply as tasting events. To stay in the know, you should subscribe to the organolepticians, our online newsletter of announcements, thoughts, vintage tasting notes, whatever strikes us. To join, just send an email to organolepticians-request@EdmundsStJohn.com with only the word subscribe in the body of the message.

The organolepticians at work


Number 87 (April 16, 2013)
LIKE A COMPLETE UNKNOWN
Number 86 (October 18, 2012)
LOOKING OUT MY BACK DOOR
Number 85 (March 8, 2011)
AS TIME GOES BY
Number 84 (October 23, 2010)
ANNIVERSARY WALTZ (Silver Edition)
Number 83 (August 9, 2010)
The Crucible
Number 82 (May 27, 2010)
A Few Thoughts Regarding Syrah, 25 Years Into The Parade...
Number 81 (February 8, 2010)
Time Out of Mind
Number 80 (November 6, 2009)
Whoppin' Good Time!
Number 79 (September 26, 2009)
What’s In a Name?
Number 78 (July 27, 2009)
Beauty In The Beast (The Baby and the Bathwater)
Number 77 (24 March, 2009)
April Starlight
Number 76 ()
First The Tide Rushes In
Number 75 (November 25, 2007)
When The Hours Turn to Smoke
Number 74 ()
Home Grown Tomatoes
Number 73 (February 28, 2007)
Late Winter Offering
Number 72 (September 4, 2006)
Me and My Shadow
Number 71 (August 13th, 2006)
Ridin' Six White Horses (Welcome to Peoria!)
Number 70 (June 20th, 2006)
Hobo's Lullaby
Number 69 (May 27th, 2006)
Might be Nothing but Words
Number 68 (January 13th, 2006)
Seeing Things
Number 67 (December 9th, 2005)
Across the Great Divide
Number 66 (November 28th, 2005)
Wild Card (When Worlds Collide)
Number 65 (November 1st, 2005)
Just Another Whistlestop
Number 64 (October 24th, 2005)
Dead To The World
Number 63 (October 12th, 2005)
Not a County Maintained Road
Number 62 (September 25th, 2005)
Knock, Knock, Knockin'
Number 61 (August 1st, 2005)
The Heart Laid Bare
Number 60 (July 17th, 2005)
Ship Of Fools
Number 59 (June 14th, 2005)
Good Things From The Garden (The Terroir Blues)
Number 58 (May 22nd, 2005)
Jack O'Diamonds (I Know You Of Old)
Number 57 (April 10th, 2005)
Whiskey Before Breakfast (And other songs of the itinerant...)
Number 56 (February 6th, 2005)
Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Number 55 (December 20th, 2004)
Original Sin
Number 54 (October 29th, 2004)
Harmonicas and Virgins
Number 53 (October 2nd, 2004)
I Can't Help It If I'm Lucky
Number 52 (August 5th, 2004)
Way Up North
Number 51 (June 28th, 2004)
Can't Forget the Motor City
Number 50 (June 2nd, 2004)
Diamonds In The Rough
Number 49 (May 17th, 2004)
The Miles Could Tell a Million Tales
Number 48 (April 12th, 2004)
Lo, How a Rose
Number 47 (March 5th, 2004)
First Bird
Number 46 (January 31st, 2004)
I Wanna Be Like Mike
Number 45 (November 2, 2003)
Ghost Stories
Number 44 (October 14, 2003)
Extra Innings
Number 43 (September 26, 2003)
Sowing On The Mountain
Number 42 (August 29, 2003)
The Fugitive/The One-Armed Man
Number 41 (July 20, 2003)
Tales of Wining and Dining
Number 40 (June 13, 2003)
Wonder If We Know Just Who We Are
Number 39 (May 13, 2003)
Blast from the Past
Number 38 (March 2, 2003)
Breakfast of Champions
Number 37 (December 14, 2002)
Talkin Bout Good News!
Number 36 (November 27, 2002)
Merging with the Energy
Number 35 (October 27, 2002)
After the Summer
Number 34 (Labor Day, September 2, 2002)
Ban des Vendanges 2002: Gamay Shelter!
Number 33 (August 25, 2002)
Waitin' for You
Number 32 (August 14, 2002)
Got the Butterflies
Number 31 (August 11, 2002)
The Great Leftfielders
Number 30 (July 2, 2002)
The King of Luckytown
Number 29 (June 24, 2002)
Rhônesome and Ramblin': In Search Of A Linear Narrative
Number 28 (May 21, 2002)
Ramblin' Blues: In search of the World's Greatest Pizza
Number 27 (April 25, 2002)
Ramblin' Fever (On the trail of the Sacred Energy)
Number 26 (April 18, 2002)
The View from Here
Number 25 (March 12, 2002)
I Started Out on Burgundy
Number 24 (January 21, 2002)
The Devil Made Me Do It
Number 23 (December 26, 2001)
All is Calm, All is Bright
Number 22 (November 8, 2001)
I Don't Think We're In Kansas Anymore, Toto
Number 21 (September 17, 2001)
911 COMES CALLING (I'll Take Any Good News I Can Find)
Number 20 (September 3, 2001)
A CASE OF THE VAPORS: Labor Day, 2001
Number 19 (September 2, 2001)
2001: THE ODDYSSEY THAT WOULD NOT DIE: Stop Me If You've Heard this Before
Number 18 (June 26, 2001)
The Myth of Sisyphus
Number 17 (May 29, 2001)
ANOTHER ROADSIDE ATTRACTION
Number 16 (February 19, 2001)
IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER:
Number 15 (January 9, 2001)
FIRST MUSTER, DOUBLENAUGHT ONE: Sound the Trumpets!
Number 14 (November 27, 2000)
WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN' GOIN' ON
Number 13 (November 6, 2000)
UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT: Good to the Last Drop
Number 12 (October 27, 2000)
UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT: The Wheels Come Off
Number 11 (October 17, 2000)
UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT: Rainy Day, Man
Number 10 (October 4, 2000)
UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT: Lord Willin' and the Crick Don't Rise
Number 9 (September 25, 2000)
UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT: Dancing with Lunacy
Number 8 (September 14, 2000)
UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT: Read 'Em and Weep!
Number 7 (September 2, 2000)
UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT: Is it September Yet?
Number 6 (August 24, 2000)
UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT: Back to the Future
Number 5 (August 20, 2000)
UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT: We Can't Go On Meeting this Way
Number 4 (August 16, 2000)
UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT: Maybe it was the Full Moon
Number 3 (August 14, 2000)
UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT: First Stirrings of Harvest
Number 2 (August 4, 2000)
Hospice du Rhône 2000, Revisited
Number 1 (June 2000)
What's New?
Number 0 (October 6, 1999)
Out Standing in His Field


© 2006 Edmunds St. John
1331 Walnut Street
Berkeley, CA 94709
t: (510) 981.1510
f: (510) 981.1610
e: info@EdmundsStJohn.com