From barrels to tanks: Will winemakers use concrete instead of oak?

By Hal Conick

- Last updated on GMT

Could moving from oak barrels to concrete tanks save the wine industry millions of dollars?
Could moving from oak barrels to concrete tanks save the wine industry millions of dollars?

Related tags Wine

Could a shift from oak barrels to concrete tanks save the wine industry millions?

That’s the theory of Sonoma Cast Stone, which is now producing the NuBarrel, described by the company as being a “disruptive and breakthrough product, by any standards”. These barrels cost $6,000 and have the capacity of four oak barrels, thereby having the ability to produce 10-times as much wine.

Founder and CEO Steve Rosenblatt told Beverage Daily that his company has been making such tanks since the mid-1990s, but he took a look at financial statements from a major winery and saw they were spending in excess of $2m on oak barrels each year.

“I thought ‘God, there’s got to be a better way. The barrels last about four years and end up at a garden supply store cut in half’,”​ he said.

What the NuBarrel can do

Sonoma touts the NuBarrel’s ability to accomplish everything an oak barrel can with a smaller footprint, less expense and the same quality. The system is designed to stack, thereby allowing winemakers a greater level of yield per square foot. Rosenblatt said they have even tested these barrels in an earthquake simulator at UC-Berkeley.

In addition, oak can be used in concert with the NuBarrel by way of a rack system submerged in the tank or via an immersion sleeve. This allows oak to be introduced in full, in part or not at all.

“We thought about what exactly a barrel does,”​ Rosenblatt said. “We took a look at every function a barrel did, like oak flavoring [and] microoxygenation. We can copy all that and make it better in the tank.”

“The oak barrels last for four to six years. These will last four to six decades. The difference is huge for a winery. After the second series … it’d be like 30 years of free barrels. Thirty years of saving $1m to $2m is a tremendous amount of difference.”

Adding a bit of a technological edge to the NuBarrel, the company Sonoma Cast Stone included a sensor inside of the tank that can communicate with smartphones regarding temperature and fluid levels. The barrel room can be monitored remotely by the winemaker.

“We’ve sort of gone on the theme of its time to rethink the barrel,”​ Rosenblatt said. “When you think about it, you’re paying all that money for a barrel and in four years you’re planting strawberries in it.”

Will the industry take to tanks?

While Rosenbaltt said he believes the NuBarrel has a “huge market to it​” and believes it will change how wine is made, the shift will take a while.

“Today probably 80% of the finest wine in Europe is all made in concrete,”​ he said. “In America, it’s probably closer to 50%, but its growing. It’s just a much better taste than stainless steel.”

Rosenblatt said the pickup of this tank system will be slow at first. Winemakers will be slow to lose barrels, he said. However, he believes the typical winery has a chief financial officer looking to save costs, thereby creating pressure to try it.

In the meantime, Rosenblatt said he wants to get four to five well-recognized wineries to try the NuBarrel this year. Frog's Leap Winery of Napa Valley, California, has already bought 10 of them, he said, after the NuBarrel's release in December.

Eventually, Rosenblatt believes winemakers will see this as a better way of producing wine.

“Ten to 12 years ago, they wouldn’t think about using oak chips; now they’re become much more accepting,”​ he said. “It’s a tough thing for winemakers to give up their barrels but when they start to see the light, I think [they’ll see] this is as good as we’ve been getting maybe even better … From every aspect it’s a better way of looking at barrels.”

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