Behind The Wine Stick

Offering wine on tap requires an investment in the technology, additional space for the kegs and training on using and maintaining the system. There’s also the risk that customers won’t respond well to kegged wine, and concerns about the limited wines available on tap. So is it worth it?

Many operators seem to think so. The main reason is the savings: Although operators may be charged up-front installation costs to set up the system (as with any new draft line), the cost per bottle is generally much less when comparing it to a wine tap system.

Wine kegs cost less compared with bottled wines because they eliminate pricey packaging components such as bottles, labels and corks. What’s more, because wine-keg technology prevents oxygen from touching the wine, operators can preserve the product longer, avoiding spoilage and lost revenue.

“On any given night, you’ll have some wine left in the last bottle you opened,” says Bruce Schneider, cofounder/managing partner of Gotham Project, a New York-based producer and sourcer of wine on tap.

“It won’t be as fresh even the next day, so you need to choose between serving compromised wine to your guests or pouring the extra wine down the drain at a financial loss.” Wine on tap eliminates these problems, he says.

Wine kegs are more environmentally friendly due to their lack of product packaging, plus they help streamline service, as staffers no longer need to take time to uncork and pour from bottles. The wine taps also help improve inventory control and eliminate the risk of employees stealing wine bottles from a bar or restaurant.

Temperature control is another benefit of wine on tap: operators can dial up the temperature of the wine on their draft system and get a glass served at the perfect temperature every single time. This is hard to do with bottles of red wine that have been left sitting out for a while. The basic premise of wine-tap technology models the same format of most beer draft systems, although many companies now offer customized equipment specific to the wine industry.

Tapping into the trend

While the concept of wine on tap originated in the 1970s, it didn’t catch on right away. In fact, the first restaurant to serve wine on tap in the U.S. was Two Urban Licks in Atlanta, which opened in 2004. Co-owner Todd Rushing created an entire wine-on-tap menu with 42 different kegged wine varieties; it now offers 72.

An impressive “wine wall” system is a focal point of the restaurant, standing 26- ft. tall and enclosed in a glass and steel temperature-controlled tower. Wines on tap are available in four sizes: small, medium, large and thief. Current selections include Frog’s Leap cabernet sauvignon, starting at $14 per glass; Big Fire pinot gris (starting at $12 per glass); and Darcie Kent chardonnay (starting at $10 per glass).

Rushing recalls custom-fitting the wine taps himself a decade ago, and talking various wineries into offering the keg service. Today there are a plethora of wine-tap companies from which to choose from.

“I work with multiple companies, and I’m very particular about what best preserves the wine,” Rushing says. He insists on stainless steel kegs that have the ability to be sanitized and refilled.

One of the first wine-on-tap providers that Two Urban Licks started working with was Free Flow Wines. The Napa, CA-based company boasts a portfolio of over 200 wine clients and offers more than 450 different varieties of wine on tap. Free Flow recently recognized sustainability achievements in wine on tap with its first Keggy Awards contest: Winners include Au Bon Climat, Qupé, Constellation Brands, Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Hahn Family Wines, King Estate Winery, and The Wine Group.

The Breslin Bar & Dining Room in New York’s Ace Hotel and sister restaurant The John Dory Oyster Bar serve multiple wines on tap. In addition to several tap lines inside the main restaurant area, The Breslin recently added four new wine tap lines in the lobby bar.

The operator rotates wines seasonally, says wine director Jessica Brown, and offers them by the glass, half bottle and full bottle. Selections include a Finger Lakes riesling, starting at $12 a glass, and a Finger Lakes cabernet franc ($13 a glass).

Substantial savings

Brown says tap wines are more economical for operators from a business standpoint. “They are less expensive for us to buy, and we’re then able to offer a higher quality wine to our customers at a lower price,” she explains. “It’s the same quality of wine whether it comes in a tap or a bottle, and our customers appreciate the added value.”

The Smart Wine Co., a Fort Lauderdale, FL-based wine-on-tap provider, has a client list of more than 300 operators across 16 states. President/CEO Cindy Diffenderfer says that her clients are impressed at the savings with wine kegs: Her per-bottle wine price from starts at $3.18 and goes up to $27 for premium wines.

“It’s a huge cost savings for operators, and the consumer has little awareness of what’s going on behind the scenes,” Diffenderfer says. Wine isn’t as branded as beer, “so you can have a nice merlot on your menu and satisfy the category.”

The Smart Wine Co. currently has a portfolio of 13 domestic wines, including Silvertap 2012 sauvignon blanc, Wine Angel 2012 pinot grigio, and Copper Sky 2012 French Colombard. The company plans to begin offering international selections as well this year.

Despite the many advantages, wine on tap isn’t right for everyone. One of the first things to consider is how much wine your establishment tends to sell on a regular basis. Is it a large enough part of your business to make a tap investment?

For instance, Schneider says that one of Gotham Project’s wine kegs is about the size of two cases of wine. “If your business isn’t going through at least one keg per month, it probably doesn’t make sense to do wine on tap,” he notes.

You also have to consider the layout of your bar area and the available space you have to work with for installing the taps. Schneider acknowledges that the majority of his clients are either new businesses or operators that are currently refitting their draft systems.

Many existing beer draft systems lack the proper equipment to support wine on tap, and it can be difficult for operators to make room for the keg without completely reconfiguring their space accordingly.

Another thing is to make sure wine taps are easily accessible to your servers and are easy to maintain. Bar Toma, a modern Italian restaurant in Chicago, has two wine taps installed—one white and one red. But the taps are “a bit further from the bar than I’d like them to be,” says wine director Cathy Mantuano. “If you have an opportunity to put them in a good place, it can be very easy and convenient, especially for a small bar area.”

The relatively limited amount of wines currently available in a keg format is another issue for Bar Toma, which always offers a rotating pinot gris and a pinot noir on tap. Bother are priced at $10 a glass, and both sell well—the pinot noir is consistently one of Bar Toma’s best-selling wines by the glass. But Mantuano says that it can be a challenge finding different types of wines to rotate.

“We’re always trying to find new wines to bring in and share with our guests,” she says. “We’re an Italian restaurant, and unfortunately the Italians are lagging behind in getting wine on tap to the United States. We’re talking to our Italian friends and trying to convince them to make this technology more of a priority.”

Perhaps the biggest concern operators have about moving to wine on tap is the customer reaction. Do consumers tend to turn up their noses to the idea of wine on tap, instead of wine in a bottle?

They don’t at the Breslin, Brown says. Because of its location in a New York hotel, The Breslin regularly welcomes a wide variety of customers. Brown says she’s rarely encountered anyone with negative feedback.

“I think customer fear is a big concern, but people react to the technology in a positive way,” she says. “They love hearing that they are getting a better product at a lower price.”

More adapters, more options

The wine-on-tap movement seems destined to grow as more restaurants and bars are able to branch out into this technology, and wineries embrace the concept and increase the number of high-quality keged wines available to operators.

Plus, with the craft-beer movement continuing to explode, many operators are also investing in higher-grade draft systems, installing 304-grade stainless steel equipment with special barrier tubing. This top-of-the-line equipment is essential for preserving many craft beers that have a high alcohol content; once operators have that draft equipment in place, it will also meet the requirements for serving wine on tap.

Melissa Niksic is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Greencork Offers Self-Serve Wine on Tap

Wine taps may also take operator convenience to a whole new level. At Greencork, a wine bar in Memphis, TN, all wine is dispersed via self-serve wine cabinets instead of by servers.

Customers receive a microchipped card giving them access to 32 different wines, which are available in 2-oz., 4-oz., or 6-oz. pours. Prices range from $2.75 for a 2-oz. pour to $40 for a 6-oz. pour.

Wine selections rotate regularly: In the past year, Greencork featured more than 300 different wines. Owner Robin Brown says that wine-on-tap technology has allowed her to create a unique experience for her customers.

“Guests like being able to sample from an ever-changing wine list without someone looking over their shoulder,” Brown says. “They also appreciate selecting the size of pour and being able to sample expensive wines without having to commit to a full bottle.”

The self-serve wine on tap eliminates the need for waitstaff, but Greencork’s equipment requires supervision, including daily cleaning and regular maintenance. Brown stresses the importance of partnering with a supplier that provides excellent service and support.

“Look carefully at vendors before buying and ask to see their manuals in advance,” Brown says, noting that the documentation that came with her system was written mostly in Italian. “If possible, find other owners in your region and visit them to have a private heart-to-heart about operation and service.” —MN

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