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In an industrial park, not far from the Napa County Airport, there is a wine operation unlike any you’ve seen or heard of. Not only is the purpose of Safe Harbor Wine Storage unusual, as far as wineries go, but its quirky name doesn’t exactly say winery. Compared to other Northern California wineries. Safe Harbor has a ginormous footprint, with two very large, nondescript buildings that look more like warehouses than winery buildings. Inside each building is a vast forest of various size stainless steel tanks, ranging from 6,450 gallons to 32,500 gallons, for a total of 340 tanks ... and there is space in the newest building for more.

The sheer size and scope of Safe Harbor is impressive, even in the Napa Valley where winery size and scope is often meant to be impressive. What sets Safe Harbor apart is that it is not a winery in the traditional sense, like the scores of wineries farther up the valley.

Safe Harbor Wine Storage is a specific purpose wine service that works with wineries throughout California, as well as such far-flung wine regions as Italy, France and Argentina, to process and enhance their wines. The foreign wines are shipped to Safe Harbor for enhancement and aging, bottled and then sold in the United States.

On any given day, lines of wine tanker trucks wait outside to unload. The genius part is that these trucks hold 6,450 gallons of wine, the same quantity (or multiples of that quantity) as the Safe Harbor tanks. Credit that moment of design insight to the owners of Safe Harbor: Steve and Allen Sullivan, owners of the Stavin oak stave company; Cory Beck, president and director of winemaking at Francis Ford Coppola Winery; and Scott McLeod, consulting winemaker and co-founder of WineXRay. Each owner brings winemaking expertise or a useful winemaking adjunct such as oak to the Safe Harbor operation.

A major function of Safe Harbor is to provide oak seasoning, or “enhancement” to the clients’ wine. Enhancement is a wine-speak metaphor for processes that make a simple wine more complex, such as aging with oak additions. Oak additions come in various forms, such as staves, chips and blocks. Oak staves are planks mounted on a frame that is immersed into a tank. The idea is to “oak age” a large quantity of wine in one tank rather than a number of individual oak barrels. Staves are used more often than chips or blocks.

Why should you, the wine consumer, care about Safe Harbor Wine Storage? Estimates are that approximately 80 to 90 percent of the wine sold today in California is what is known in the trade as bulk wine. Most wine consumers envision a winery as a place with presses, oak barrels, a few steel tanks and maybe chandeliers hanging from the low ceilings to give the place atmosphere.

You won’t find that at Safe Harbor Wine Storage. Instead, there are rows upon rows of shiny stainless steel tanks, all the same height, marching in formation from one end of the building to the other. General Manager and Winemaker Joel Green says the business park places a height maximum on all buildings; “So to maximize our gallons, all of the tanks in both buildings are the same height.”

Green says during harvest, when all of the tanks are full, Safe Harbor stores 8 million gallons. “And just 20 cellar workers and himself as winemaker, handle all that wine.” he added.

By comparison, Green figures that a winery processing the same amount of wine as Safe Harbor would need 60 cellar workers and four times the square footage of cellar floor space.

“We can move wine from any tank in the building to any other tank with just two hoses,” Green said. It’s the kind of design and operational efficiency that makes Safe Harbor an effective operation that can be handled by so few workers.

According to Green, most of the red wine stored at Safe Harbor is aged for about 12 months, with clients showing a preference for French, American and Hungarian oak, in that order. French oak is a more subtle seasoning than American, with Hungarian oak falling somewhere in between. For the winery selling a red wine for $20 or less, it makes economic sense. And the consumer gets a wine with complexity and depth of flavor.

Another service offered by Safe Harbor Wine Storage is called micro-oxidation, a technical term that allows the winemaker to soften the tannins in a red wine, stabilize color and impart oak flavors, in effect mirroring in a tank what would happen in a barrel. Green says that micro-ox is used on about 10 percent of the wines that Safe Harbor handles.

“Aging wine in barrels is micro-oxygenation, so the process is the same on a larger scale (in tanks),” explains Green. He said that more consumers than winemakers place a stigma on such winemaking practices as micro-ox, and the same can be said for screw caps when they were first introduced.

“The truth about the wine business is that it talks ‘Old World’ but acts ‘New World.’” he said.

So, the next time you reach for a bottle of red wine, with smooth fruity flavor and oak notes, it may have been aged in a tank, and not a barrel, at Safe Harbor Wine Storage.

Gerald D. Boyd is a Santa Rosa-based wine and spirits writer. Email him at boydvin@sbcglobal.net.