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Wine In Kegs Catching On

October 17, 2011

A growing number of restaurants and bars are stocking wine in kegs, reports Wine Spectator, and pouring wines by the glass from a tap. While not a new idea, keg wines—and their economic and environmental benefits—now seem to be gaining traction.

Wine kegs can be found on-premise all over the country, with high concentrations in California and New York. Two Urban Licks in Atlanta has a wine wall 26 feet tall with 42 stainless steel barrels of wine on display. There’s even a Whole Foods in Dallas that not only sells wine on tap, it offers refillable containers to customers.

What you can get on tap varies, but there are some very good wines being poured, including Saintsbury Chardonnay Carneros 2009 (86 points in Wine Spectator), Miner Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2008 (85 points) and Clif Family Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2009 (86 points). “It’s got to be about the wine first, and not just the delivery system,” says Charles Bieler, who along with partner Bruce Schneider, founded Gotham Project, a wine-keg company specializing in New York Finger Lakes wines.

It’s popular for restaurants to have house blends—separate keg brands avoid potential conflicts with a winery’s distributor, who might only deal with bottles. New York City’s Burger and Barrel “winepub” has four wine taps that offer a rotation of various wines from California and New York. The reaction from diners has been overwhelmingly positive, according to beverage director Natalie Tapken. “I was actually really surprised how excited they are about it,” she says.

Draft wine’s main benefit is freshness. It comes in stainless steel kegs, connected to the taps by plastic tubing containing inert gas that pushes wine through the lines. This inert gas also protects the wines from oxidation by occupying the empty space in the keg. By taking the bottle out of the equation, you also eliminate concerns about bottle variation, bottle shock and faulty corks.

Kegs also cut down on waste and costs. Bottles, corks, cartons, labels and capsules can add up to $2 to $3 per bottle. Kegs are reusable, which is more environmentally friendly than glass recycling. Wine in kegs weighs less than an equivalent amount of wine in bottles, which reduces transportation costs. Accordingly, many keg wines are sold at a discount of as much as 25% off the wholesale bottle price. Moreover, the system allows more flexibility in serving sizes, from small, taste-sized pours to liter-sized carafe servings. Breakage isn’t a concern, and kegs take up less space than cases of wine—a typical keg holds the equivalent of 26 bottles.

For all its benefits, the idea has never really stuck in the U.S. despite periodic introductions. What’s changed? “It seems to appeal to a younger demographic,” says Gotham Project’s Bieler. “Frankly, it’s catching us off guard. Every month, we’re selling 25% more than the previous month. The growth is all millennials, who are way more open to whatever weird varietal, new appellation, or new format is out there,” he says.

Another reason wine on tap is growing is because people are figuring out how to do it right. Jim Neal of N2 Wines, a winery and packaging facility in Napa, first started experimenting with tap wines in 2005, but was unhappy with how the wines tasted. He now uses a system of inert gas to help clean and sanitize kegs, with a special system to clean the steel dispensing tube inside the keg. He also discovered that the tubing used in beer keg systems was gas permeable—it let oxygen in—so he switched to tubing with a gas barrier. Inert gases like nitrogen and argon protect the wine from oxidizing. But wine on tap also needs small amounts of carbon dioxide—trace amounts of dissolved carbon dioxide are left in wines before they are bottled, helping a wine’s aromatic and fresh qualities. Neal suggests a similar thinking with keg wine, and recommends a mix of nitrogen with a small amount of carbon dioxide, similar to what is used when Guinness is poured on tap.

Michael Ouellette of Vintap, a wine distributor and broker, agrees there are some challenges with the mechanical side of keg wine, so he is adamant about making certain the proper equipment is installed before he sells a restaurant wine in a keg. But once everything is in place, he says, “Compared to everything else that can go wrong in a restaurant, you can forget about it.”

That said, restaurants are still holding on to their corkscrews. Tap wines will probably never move beyond wines meant for early consumption. But a wine-by-the-glass program can be simplified and improved by serving wines on tap. Piccola Cellars in Woodinville, WA, is taking the next step—the winery packages their wines exclusively in kegs they sell directly to consumers, including a refill service.


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