Wine-by-the-glass programs are more important than ever as many guests are less likely to splurge on a full bottle these days. The rational is clear: It’s often easier to sell a glass than a whole bottle and upsells are easier too. However, there are downsides to selling by the glass, the biggest of which is spoilage. Once a bottle is open, if it doesn’t sell soon, that wine is down the drain.
An innovative solution that is being discovered by a growing number of bar and restaurant owners around the country is to serve wines on tap.
Yes, you read correctly: tap wines. The idea is similar to draft beer. Wineries fill kegs with premium wine and restaurants dispense the high-quality product via a specially made tap at the bar. Some operators use a fountain key with a dispenser and others jerry-rig beer kegs. A few others mix soda kegs with beer taps and others have created their own systems. The wine-tap strategy boasts several quality, environmental and marketing advantages. Because it is air-tight, driven by an inert nitrogen-argon gas, the integrity of wine is protected throughout the system so there’s little oxidation and it often it ties into the locavore trend for restaurants that source local wines.
These tap wines are totally different from bag in box. For one thing, they use reusable kegs filled at the winery specifically for them. In contrast, bag in box is a pre-filled, mass-market commodity. Thus far, most restaurants have been approaching wineries to supply their tap programs, but that may change as more wine producers see the concept’s advantages.
“We sell a lot of wine on tap,” says Michael Bohlsen, co-owner of the East Islip, N.Y.-based Bohlsen Restaurant Group. His recently opened Italian restaurant Verace offers four wines on tap by the glass, half-liter and liter. Both whites offered are from New York, a Hermann J. Wiemer dry riesling and a Raphael sauvignon blanc, priced at $8, $18 and $31, for the three sizes. The reds are an Italian barbera from Iuli and a Raphael merlot blend, priced at $9, $19 and $32. He tends to sell more of the New York State wines. The restaurant supplies the kegs to the wineries for refilling.
Tapping a Trend
The idea to serve wine in this way, recalls Bohlsen, was sparked during a trip to Italy, where wine made from the vineyard just outside a small restaurant was served straight from a wooden cask. Bohlsen’s team initially considered Cruvinet-type, nitrogen-dispensing systems. “They work well, but they are bulky and you still have the problem of the bottles and corked wines.” Like other wine-tap pioneers, Bohlsen, like many other restaurants around the country, created Versace’s system.
The aptly named Tap, a gastropub owned by Atlanta-based, multi-concept operator Concentrics Restaurants, has been serving wines on tap since it opened in 2007. Sixteen taps serve eight reds and eight whites, priced $8 to $11 for a six-ounce pour.
Tap’s system uses converted beer kegs and beer taps, says manager Shelley Sweet. “We partner with about 50 wineries in California, Oregon and Washington, who fill the kegs with wine,” she explains. R. Stuart & Co.’s “Big Fire” Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from Oregon and California La Crema Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are top sellers. The kegs are hooked up to lines and tapped.
Two Urban Licks, another Concentrics American restaurant in Atlanta, uses the same system with 21 white and 21 red tap wines, priced at $7 to $16 a glass. They also offer a “mini” bottles of one and a half glasses of wine, priced from $12 to $24; a “small” bottle, or three glasses of wine, menued at $21 to $48; and a “thief,” which contains five glasses, priced from $35 to $80. The two restaurants serve many of the same wines and also developed their own tap-wine equipment. It supplies the kegs to wineries for refilling. The two Concentrics Restaurants offer only wine on tap.
Although the Atlanta restaurants are shipping wines across the country, costs—both in dollars and in an environmental sense—are lower than transporting the same volume of wine in glass bottles. Eliminating bottles also reduces trash and recycling. “One of the system’s great selling points is that it’s environmentally sound,” points out Sweet. “Our garbage is a lot less.”
“You are basically lowering the carbon footprint of your wine program,” chimes in Bohlsen, citing eco-friendly reductions in shipping as well as recycling benefits. Even if restaurants did recycle its bottles they process, it would come with additional financial and labor costs.
“Tap wine is green, it’s cost-effective and customers really appreciate that,” says Ryan Kastan, assistant manager at the Portland, Ore., unit of Tampa-based, 146-location The Melting Pot, fondue restaurant. The restaurant is the first in the entire chain to serve tap wine using a modified beer tap, in this case from stainless steel, five-gallon kegs. The chain partnered with local Wooldridge Creek Vineyard to serve its cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo, chardonnay and viognier for $8 a glass. “The wines taste delicious,” says Kastan. “And it’s a great deal compared to the price of a bottle.”
The Price is Right
A number of savings accrue from the tap system. No corks mean no loss from cork taint (which affects an estimated two to five percent of bottled wine), and the inert gas system eliminates oxidation–which all translate to lower costs. Keg shipping charges less due to weight reductions over bottles and wineries often pass on savings from not having to bottle and label the bulk wine.
“Right now a lot of wineries are backed up on inventory, so they might be happy to make a direct sale like this,” says wine industry consultant Jon Fredrikson, from Woodside, Calif.-based Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates. “The idea of saving glass and all the freight and shipping has merit, too. Everyone benefits because the winery depletes some of its surplus, and the restaurateur realizes costs savings, which he can pass along to the consumer. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Bohlsen passes his savings along to customers. “People have a chance to drink a better quality product for less than if they got the same wine out of a bottle,” he says.
Even better deals are to be had. “The half liters on tap hold nearly three glasses and the full liters about five, which is a nice price savings,” says Verace’s general manager Lauren Nuckel.
Lower prices don’t necessarily mean lesser quality. Bohlsen worked with Raphael to develop a proprietary Bordeaux-type blend for Verace. “We spent a day tasting barrel samples and blending.”
The producers are just as concerned about delivering the best wine on tap. When the winemaker from the Italian brand Iuli came to check out Verace’s tap program, he said his barbera tasted as good from the tap as it did in his winery, relates Bohlsen. The winemaker from Wooldridge Creek also came in to check on the program at The Melting Pot and to educate the staff about his wines.
An Easy Sell
Most promotional efforts are low-key, consisting of a short blurb on menus. “Our beverage menu is divided into tap and bottle sides,” notes Sweet. Staff is trained to include the tap wine concept in their sales pitch. “One of the great selling points is that it’s environmentally friendly.”
“In Verace’s continuing effort to reduce both our impact on the environment and your wallet,” touts the top of the tap wine section. “Our servers are well-versed in the wines on tap,” adds Nuckel. “If customers are hesitant, we give them a sample and the taste wins them over.”
Verace’s system has gotten some good press and much positive customer feedback. Customers come looking for tap wine at The Melting Pot. The menu contains an explanation and tasting notes. Wooldridge Creek also provided elaborate tap handles which, “look really sleek,” notes Kastan.
Operators are quick to claim there’s also no cannibalization of bottle sales. “The taps haven’t taken away from our other wine sales,” says Kastan. He believes the novel system intrigues customers into trying a glass for add-on sales. Tap only sells tap wines, except for a few sparklers that won’t work on the system, and Verace boasts an extensive 112 bottle selection, priced from $25 to $200, as well as a few 10 more non-tap wines by the glass. Tap wines haven’t cut into other wine sales, says Nuckel, in part because tap selections are still limited at this point.
And Kastan thinks that wines on tap might be viable in other Melting Pot franchises. “New ideas that spur wine consumption are great, especially if they get the wine-by-the-glass price down, and attract people to the restaurant,” says consultant Fredrikson.
“I think you’re going to see the concept all over the place in the next five years,” predicts Bohlsen. Tap wine is going to be a big deal.” ·