Growing & Winemaking


Tanks Adapt to the Times

April 2010
by Peter Mitham

  • Difficult economic conditions have stalled tank sales.
  • The dramatic dive in the price of steel is piquing the interest of suppliers and consumers.
  • Wineries are demanding cheaper, more efficient tanks.
  • Design, fabrication and tank management software are evolving to meet winemakers’ needs.
Wineries cut their orders for tanks dramatically last year, as economic retrenchment became the order of the day and consumer tastes shifted down. This year, suppliers are bringing forward tanks that fit wineries’ leaner budgets but equally demanding criteria.

The tanks now being offered are more compact, with more efficient designs and software to improve tank management. Manufacturers hope the revamped equipment will help boost sales, which sagged through last year, and give cash-strapped wineries—still opening in spite of ongoing economic uncertainties—what they need.

Most winery buyers are looking at standard cylindrical units, said Rod Ferronato of Santa Rosa Stainless Steel in Santa Rosa, Calif. Materials costs are currently sitting in the $1.60 per pound range, quite a drop from the price of nearly $3 per pound two years ago. But prices are marching up again, retailers caution—rising 30 cents per pound between November 2009 and February 2010.

“People are actually kind of excited about the pricing right now,” Ferronato said. He added: “People are not doing anything out of the ordinary in building tanks. It’s very straightforward, bread and butter tanks.”

Ferronato said the wineries that are most excited are selling wine in the sub-$15 per bottle category, which is giving them the cash flow they need to invest in expansion. But even then, some observers note a brisk market in secondhand tanks, and elevated demand for custom-crush and lease arrangements to meet needs pending a more robust economy.

New products
That hasn’t stopped manufacturers from introducing new products to attract those who are buying, however.

One case in point is Ellipse, a new elliptical fermenter introduced by Spokane Industries of Washington state. Ellipse is both compact (improving capacity within the same space by at least 30%) and squat, allowing winemakers to access the interior for tasks such as manual punch-downs during fermentation. Steve Santjer, marketing manager for Spokane Industries, said that interest in the product is “unlike anything else in recent memory.”

Since Ellipse debuted at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento in late January, feedback about the product has focused on the design of the unit, perhaps even more than the compact shape.

“Customers told us they liked the seal setup, the fully jacketed tank construction, the integrated fork pockets, the tidiness of the variable lid design, and the extremely efficient cooling design the unique elliptical shape allows,” Santjer said. “We thought the space utilization attributes would be a prime feature, but most customers indicated this was of secondary interest.”

The elliptical shape allows the jacket to better control tank temperature and reduce hot spots during fermentation, because a greater volume of wine is closer to the jacket thanks to the elliptical shape. Standard cylindrical tanks have a wider radius, and the center is further away from the jacket, creating the potential for hot spots in the middle of the tank.

The seal also promises to lower long-term costs, because it nests within the lid of the tank rather than jutting out where it could be exposed to wear and tear. Its rectangular shape also provides a better seal, because a greater surface is available to seal the tank than with a conventional round seal.

The tanks range in size from 34 inches wide by 60 inches deep to 500 gallons, but they can be designed to hold between 300 and 800 gallons. They’re also portable, which is why the integrated fork pockets for transfer are appealing. Pricing starts at $6,000.
Eliminating bacteria with design

Design and job-tracking software can help wineries keep their tanks clean. The tank-eating bacteria described by Richard Carey and Linda Jones McKee of Pennsylvania’s Tamenend Winery earlier this year (see “Beware the Bacteria,” Wines & Vines, January 2010) aren’t a common problem for the people we interviewed about tanks this month. But smarter manufacture can help reduce the potential for bacteria to be a problem.

Joe Belli, owner of Westec Tank and Equipment in Healdsburg, Calif., said a new spot welder that will allow his shop to fabricate tanks with fewer seams will help eliminate hard-to-reach spots and make tanks easier to clean and less habitable by bacteria. While some wineries get tanks ground and polished—a common practice in the brewing industry that gives tank interiors a smoother finish—the process is expensive and not favored by wineries—especially not in the current economic environment, where every cent of margin helps.

Similarly, the winery management software from Oregon’s IVIS Inc. can help wineries track job orders and ensure that tasks such as cleaning and tank maintenance are completed. This guarantees accountability and allows wineries to follow up on what wasn’t done when problems arise. It also helps boost the efficient use of tanks, and reduces risks in the winemaking process.

Building-in better value
Smart fabrication is another option to help wineries get better value from their tanks. This spring, W estec Tank and Equipment of Healdsburg, Calif., will have a new spot welder in place—at the cost of several thousand dollars—that will allow it to produce jackets that fit tanks more seamlessly and thus offer more efficient temperature control.

“Typically, for 12 feet you have six connections on a double jacket. Our new machine will allow you to have the same amount of coverage but with only four connections,” Westec owner Joe Belli said. “If you were putting in 100 tanks, typically if you had 12 feet of coverage, you’d have six (welds) per, that’s 600 connections. Now, you’d have 200 less connections. That’s huge, if you multiply it out.”

Moreover, it will enable Westec to produce tanks with jackets of up to 71 inches rather than 47 inches. This gives tanks better coverage and enhances temperature control. Plus, fewer seams mean fewer places for bacteria to cluster, and a healthier tank environment. “This is more than just eye candy,” Belli said. “We should be able to offer more tank for the same price.”

But the real advantages won’t be known until the welder arrives and is put to work fabricating tanks. Belli hopes it will save on labor and fabrication costs, but the proof will be in the use. He wasn’t able to estimate the potential savings.

Track those tanks
Keeping track of tanks to ensure they’re working to capacity is another question. IVIS Inc. of Lake Oswego, Ore., has sought to address this issue through its Innovative Vinology Information System (IVIS). The system aims to track winery processes from the vineyard through to production and sales (packages are available from a base price of $5,000 and an annual fee of $1,500). It also can help track several facets of tank use from fermentation through clean-up and maintenance.

With winemakers asking tanks to do double and triple duty, from fermenters to blending and mixing tanks, IVIS helps winemakers track the contents of tanks for compliance purposes as well as to schedule use.

Our Northwest correspondent Peter Mitham is a freelance agriculture writer based in Vancouver, B.C. Look for his weekly dispatches at Headlines. Contact him through


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