Like boxed wine on store shelves, kegged wines in bars and restaurants can be a tough sell at first. Consumers are often suspicious about the quality and taste of any wine that’s offered on tap.
But operators have several compelling reasons for serving wine from a kegged system. One is the taste: Since the wine isn’t exposed to air, it’s always fresh. It’s more cost effective for operators to sell wine on tap, so if they pass on the savings to the customer, it’s a better value. And since it reduces the need for multiple bottles and corks, kegged wine is an eco-friendly option.
Todd Rushing, partner for the 11 concepts of the Atlanta-based Concentrics Restaurants, wanted to offer guests wines on tap at Two Urban Licks in 2004. After chatting with winemakers and determining it could be done, he installed a system in the 493-seat Atlanta restaurant that focuses on “fiery American cuisine.”
Originally the wine-on-tap system at Two Urban Licks was an adaptation of beer equipment. “Once it became a ‘thing,’ people started making wine-specific material, which has been wonderful,” says Rushing.
The operator’s innovative wine program today consists of stainless steel barrels—used for all wines except those that are sparkling—displayed in a 26-ft. glass-and-steel, temperature-controlled tower that serves as a focal point in the restaurant. Taps use argon or nitrogen to prevent oxidation, and the wine is drawn by gravity. Two Urban Licks has added another 30 wines on tap since 2004 due to demand; it offers 28 white wines and 30 red wines on tap, with prices ranging from $8 to $14 a glass. The wine is served as a half glass, glass, mini thief (10 oz.), half thief (20 oz.) or full thief (42 oz.).
“The benefits are incredible—eco-friendly, freshness and more,” Rushing notes. What’s more, customers are accepting and embracing the concept, he says. “It has moved from a novelty to a smart decision when ordering.”
When the management team for the Washington, D.C.-based Matchbox Food Group was mapping out plans last year for the 300-seat vintage pizza bistro Matchbox, they knew they wanted tap wine to be a big part of its beverage program. Why? “It has significantly less waste, and producers have gotten to a point where they are producing quality wines for keg systems,” explains executive team member John Donnelly.
Matchbox offers nine wines on tap, priced $6 to $11 a glass, at one of its Washington, D.C. restaurants and eight at its Merrifield, VA, location, priced $7 to $11 a glass. Guests can also get draft wine in “half bottle” and “bottle” amounts. Matchbox Food Group operates nine restaurants total.
A WIDE SELECTION OF WINES
Several companies now specialize in amassing winery clients and offering complete portfolios of kegged wines. Matchbox, for example, purchases them from Free Flow Wines. Founded in Napa Valley in 2009, Free Flow Wines maintains more than 250 large and small winery clients, from Trefethen Family Vineyards in Napa Valley to Simi Winery in Sonoma and King Estate in Oregon.
The company currently offers more than 250 wines available in stainless steel keg format at over 1,500 venues nationwide.
Free Flow founder/chairman Dan Donahoe cites the environmental benefits as the top reason that more operators are trading bottles for kegs and corkscrews for tap lines. “Each wine keg holds the equivalent of 26 bottles,” he says. “In 2012 Free Flow Wines saved 347,254 bottles, corks, capsules, labels and cases—equaling over 260 tons of packaging waste—from landfills nationwide.” Wines on tap also reduce shipping costs, as kegs are lighter than glass bottles, further decreasing a venue’s carbon footprint, he adds.
Working with Free Flow Wines, Two Urban Licks has changed 30 wines to 5-gallon reusable kegs. The rest of its wines are in 15-gallon kegs, Rushing says, “but we will eventually move to all 5-gallon kegs.
The New York-based Gotham Project also produces and sources wines for distribution on tap. Bruce Schneider and Charles Bieler cofounded the company, which provides its more than 300 customers nationwide with over 35 domestic and international wine offerings.
Gotham Project’s goal is to keep the distance that stainless steel kegs travel from empty to refill to less than 500 miles. To that end, they have developed a network of “filling stations” in New York, California, Illinois, Washington and Colorado.
Schneider has seen an increased interest in both local and kegged wines. “The casual nature of wine on tap is very much in line with the national trends we are seeing towards casual fine dining, small plates and menus, craft beers and cocktails.”
Wines offered by Richer Pour offer a slightly different variation of the keg format. Instead of refillable ones made from stainless steel, Richer Pour wines are poured into 5.28-gallon vessels made from 100% recyclable materials.
“Not only are they lighter and more efficient to ship than bottles, they can be put out with a venue or restaurant’s recycling when empty,” says founder David Gordon. Richer Pour currently offers six California wines that can be connected to an existing tap system.
And California-based Vintap Wine Company offers 16 wines on tap, in both 20-liter, stainless-steel kegs, as well as recyclable bins made of food-grade PET recyclable plastic. Founder/president Michael Ouellette says the chance of getting a corked bottle is eliminated with kegged wines. That’s a big consideration, he says, since trichloranisole (TCA) affects upwards of 5% of all bottles closed with natural corks.
SELLING THE CONCEPT
Of course, fancy technology and environmental benefits aside, the proof with tap wine is in the glass. And even before serving guests, venues are often faced with their preconceived notions about kegged wine’s taste and quality.
Paul Tanguay, partner in consultancy Tippling Brothers and beverage director for Tavernita restaurant in Chicago, compares guests’ perceptions of wines on tap to those of another recent wine innovation. “We face some of the same misconceptions we did in the early 1990s with screw cap closures: poor quality.”
But Tanguay says that while some are still finding the concept off-putting, in general Tavernita’s wine-on-tap program has been well received. Tavernita, a 122-seat small-plates concept, serves 18 wines on tap, available in half glass, glass and “bottle.”
Still, customers often seem to misunderstand what wine on tap is, “and generally picture in their minds that we’re pouring them box wines,” says Noel Burkeen, president of Another Round Wine Bar in Katy, TX. He’s tried positioning them using several terms, and has discovered that calling them “draft wines” works best.
The 80-seat wine bar has the capacity for 12 wines on tap, but it’s currently serving fewer due to market availability. Guests can sip wines such as Charles & Charles riesling or cabernet sauvignon (from Gotham Project) for $8 a glass, or Coppola Director’s Cut chardonnay or pinot noir for $12 a glass.
To allow tap wine to stand on its own, Schneider recommends integrating kegged wine with the other by-the-glass options on the menu, rather than on its own section. “I am definitely not saying to hide the fact that it is coming from a draft system, but calling too much attention to it can backfire, causing the consumer to have doubts.”
How does an operator assuage those doubts? “We encourage establishments to offer their customers a small tasting before they commit to a glass,” recommends Tim Ebner, vice president of marketing and business development for kegged wine storage and delivery systems provider Perlick. “Owners can easily do this because they don’t have to open a bottle.”
Donnelly concurs, noting that rather than allowing a wine’s rating or taste profile to be the deciding factor for ordering, “we always offer small tastes, which leads to great conversation between staff and guests.”
GREAT TASTE, LESS WASTE
Eliminating the need to open bottles for by-the-glass pours keeps wine fresh and reduces waste. Gordon points out that the average restaurant loses 5% to 10% of its by-the-glass sales by wine spoiling in an opened bottle.
“If bartenders at each bar are opening bottles to pour a glass here and a glass there, there’s a good chance that those bottles aren’t going to be fully used, and the wines are going to get [re]corked,” says Patrick Lyons. The partner for the 400-seat Boston neighborhood restaurant Towne Stove and Spirits serves Richer Pour’s cabernet sauvignon for $8 a glass.
Keg-dispensing system manufacturers say that since their products are not exposed to air, they retain freshness for up to 12 months if not tapped, and up to 90 days once tapped.
Some believe that kegged wines are part of a paradigm shift that is here to stay. “Because consumers are more increasingly eco-conscious and new generations of wine drinkers are more adventurous, wine on tap is gaining in popularity,” says Richer Pour’s Gordon.
Lyons of Towne Stove & Spirits thinks the decision for an operator to serve tap wines is quite a simple one. “The wines are consistently high quality and the price is fair—it’s a no brainer.” ·
Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, and on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.
WHICH WINES TO TAP?
There is some debate as to which wines are best-suited to being served on draft. Zach Tirone, general manager and sommelier for the 130-seat The LCL: Bar & Kitchen in New York, thinks whites and rosés shine best, as well as light-bodied reds including cabernet franc and pinot noir.
“And recent vintage wines are probably best, since a keg system is all about being fresh and clean,” he adds. The LCL: Bar & Kitchen serves Channing Daughter’s pinot grigio on tap for $13 a glass and $52 a “bottle.”
Tavernita restaurant in Chicago has served everything from “light zippy whites to oaky cabs,” says beverage director Paul Tanguay.
Most wines that work well under screw tap—those that are meant to be consumed within two years—work in keg format, says Bruce Schneider, cofounder of kegged wine supplier Gotham Project “The goal is the same: to preserve the primary fruit flavors, aromas and freshness in young white, rosé and red wines.”
Schneider, also believes red wines with light to medium tannins and oak profiles are conducive to being kegged, rather than those intended for long-term aging.
“The reality is, wine you would buy by-the-glass somewhere is not going to be some super high-end juice that has been aged for years,” says Noel Burkeen, president of Another Round Wine Bar in Katy, TX.
Winemakers are changing their viticultural and vinicultural practices to produce wines meant to be consumed now, Burkeen says. That’s in part why recent releases will comprise the majority of wine-on-tap selections, he says.
Not everyone agrees, however. Most of the wines on tap served at Two Urban Licks are recent releases, says Todd Rushing, partner for the Atlanta operator’s parent company. But that’s due to kegged wines being a relatively new trend, he says.
Rushing believes that the uptick in inventory of international wines in kegs—including rioja—will lead to a tendency of seeing older wines on tap. —KAM
WINE-ON-TAP STORAGE AND DELIVERY SYSTEMS
Once operators have located a source for kegged wines, they need to construct or purchase a system to dispense them. Vinotemp. for one, offers a four-tap wine keg dispenser, mounted on casters for easy mobility, and a thermostat that adjusts from 50 to 65 degrees.
Perlick features several systems, including the 60” Dual Zone Wine Center, which can dispense up to eight different wines in two temperature zones. Micromatic’s Pro-Line Wine systems have two to eight taps, with dual temperatures for white and red wines.
How do you choose? “A big consideration is infrastructure,” says David Gordon, founder of kegged wine provider Richer Pour. “Does the venue have existing tap lines they can use, or do they have space to add a tap set-up if they don’t already have one?”
Be sure that all fittings that come in contact with the wine are made of 304 grade stainless steel. The 303 stainless “will cause an off-reaction with the wine and produce sulphur-like aromas,” says Bruce Schneider, cofounder of wine-on-tap firm Gotham Project. He adds that while 303 grade remains the standard for beer, manufacturers are increasingly using 304 grade so towers can be used interchangeably with wine or beer.—KAM