The next time you ask your waiter what's on tap, the answer might surprise you. How about a Calera Pinot Noir or Bouchaine Chardonnay? A growing number of restaurants and bars are putting kegs of wine behind their bars, pouring wines by the glass from a tap. While the trend is not a new one, it has finally caught on as wineries, restaurants and consumers alike discover that the wines are good and there are economic and environmental benefits to kegs.
Wine drinkers can find keg wines in wine bars and restaurants 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 sells wine on tap.
What you can get on tap varies, but there are some very good wines being poured, including Saintsbury Chardonnay Carneros 2009 (86 points), 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 also 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. "People are excited about it," she said. "I was actually really surprised how excited they are about it."
Why would anyone want wine on draft? The main benefit for consumers is freshness. In a standard wine-by-the glass program, restaurants often keep an opened bottle around for hours or days, increasing the threat of oxidation. Better venues discard bottles after a day, or use storage systems to keep the wine fresh. But that's not a concern with kegs. Draft wine 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 weigh less than an equivalent amount of wine in bottles, which reduces transportation costs. Because of that, many keg wines are sold at a discount by as much as 25 percent off of the wholesale bottle price, discounts which are passed on to the consumer.
By ditching the bottle, restaurants can more easily sell wine in different sizes, giving consumers more options, from small, taste-size pours to liter-sized carafe servings. Breakage is not a concern, and kegs take up less space than cases of wine—a typical keg holds the equivalent of 26 bottles.
Keg wine is not a new idea. The containers are often used to store wines in wineries before bottling, and in Europe it's not uncommon to serve wine directly from kegs or casks. The idea has been introduced in the United States from time to time, but it's never stuck.
What's changed? "It seems to appeal to a younger demographic," says Gotham Project's Bieler. The New Yorker has worked on a variety of wine projects in multiple regions and has never been afraid of thinking outside the bottle—he's sold wines in glass jugs and Tetra packs. But the wine-on-tap movement is particularly "explosive," he claims. "Frankly, it's catching us off guard," says Bieler. "Every month, we're selling 25 percent 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."
Another reason wine on tap is growing is because people are figuring out how to do it right. Today it's more likely that the wine you order on tap is going to taste fresh, whether it's the first glass or the last out of the barrel.
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 says any winery can buy the equipment to fill a keg with their own wine, but they might lack the proper washing, filling and sanitizing technology. Neal 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.
Neal 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. He suggests a similar thinking with keg wine, and recommends a mix of nitrogen with 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. Once everything is in place, Ouellette says, "Compared to everything else that can go wrong in a restaurant, you can forget about it."
While keg wines offer quality, value and green consciousness, 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, and wine lovers are embracing the idea. Piccola Cellars in Woodinville, Wash., might be the next step—this winery packages their wines exclusively in kegs they sell directly to consumers, including a refill service. Piccola’s Diana Kaspic says that consumers at first have many questions, but after they’ve thought about the benefits, they say, “Oh my gosh I never thought about that, but now that I’ve thought about it, it makes so much sense.”
With additional reporting by Robert Taylor