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Moving beyond bottles, many bars are delivering quality glasses of wine straight from the keg.

By Michelle Franzen Martin

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A few years ago, the mere thought of serving wine on tap would have been jeered by serious wine connoisseurs. Now, with a growing interest in sustainability and great strides in storage technology, wine on tap is finding its way behind the bars of top restaurants around the country.

“Consumers are surprised at the number of great wines that are now available on tap, and when they try a glass poured from a keg, they really understand how fresh it is,” says Jordan Kivelstadt, co-founder and CEO of Free Flow Wines, a Napa Valley, Calif., company that puts wine in ready-to-tap kegs for more than 300 wineries. “There are no bottles left open overnight behind the bar, so each glass is fresh.”

One keg from Free Flow Wines equates to 26 wine bottles.
One keg from Free Flow Wines equates to 26 wine bottles.

That’s because on-tap wines have no oxidation, no corkage and no spoilage, Kivelstadt explains. When a wine bottle is opened, it has a limited time in which it can be consumed. But in a keg, the wine stays fresh for months after it’s tapped.

“Wine on tap is exactly how the winemaker intended the wine to taste, from the barrel to the tap,” he says.

Certainly, the increasing interest in wines on tap can be credited to the taste of the product, but other factors also have played a role.

“Modern wine on tap, using kegs, has been something that people had been trying to do for years, but the technology was not there to make it a feasible idea,” says Todd Hipper, who runs San Diego Cellars in California, an urban winery that offers wines on tap in addition to growlers (larger bottles or jugs meant for takeout) for wine.

San Diego Cellars offers exclusive wines on tap as well as wine growlers (left).
San Diego Cellars offers exclusive wines on tap as well as wine growlers (left).

“For a long time, there was a stigma against wines on tap because of the idea that wines needed a significant amount of bottle aging before being drinkable. With the rise in riper, more approachable styles of wines that are drinkable sooner, it has become possible to drink fine wine on tap in a way that was impossible even a decade ago.”

On Top of the Trend

At Sea Island’s Davis Love Grill, more than a dozen wines are available on tap. The selection changes throughout the year.

“There are certain wines that we keep on tap because of sheer popularity, and others that get replaced,” says Ryanne Carrier, Sea Island sommelier and beverage manager. “We want to add variety, so sometimes we’ll pick a wine to put on tap that might not be as popular, but gives [people] something unique and different to try.”

Sometimes, diners will come in and try a flight of six or so wines. That’s one advantage to offering an on-tap selection—there’s no commitment to trying a whole bottle.

Greenlip sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, is one favorite at Davis Love Grill. It features a bright acidity that is reflective of grapefruit and lime, and has a good amount of minerality, Carrier says.

Another favorite is the Frog’s Leap sauvignon blanc, a wine from Rutherford in Napa Valley that is the perfect alternative to Greenlip. “It’s varietally correct in terms of the difference between Marlborough and Napa Valley wines,” Carrier says. “In the Frog’s Leap, you have more [of] a tropical fruit side to the wine, whereas, with the Greenlip, there’s more citrus. Our guests really enjoy it.”

When Davis Love Grill added wines on tap last spring, there was a mixed reaction. “Some people were pleasantly surprised because they go to Napa and other parts of the wine world and find taps in their tasting rooms—they’ve been very excited,” Carrier says. “Others, who aren’t familiar with wines on tap, tend to be a bit put off by them at first, but then they try them and are very surprised at how much they like the quality.”

Sometimes it’s just a matter of shifting one’s expectations, she explains.

“I can understand their hesitation at first,” she says. “It seems unusual to drink wine from a keg. … Once people open their minds to it, they really embrace it.”

Going Green

Sommeliers, winemakers and producers point to another important aspect of putting wines on tap: It’s more environmentally friendly.

Collin Cranor, a winemaker for boutique winery Nottingham Cellars in Livermore, Calif., says restaurants with by-the-glass offerings typically have to dump around 20 to 30 percent of their bottles due to slow sales and spoilage. And that’s not to mention the waste of throwing out or recycling the bottles and corks.

“Each 5.2-gallon keg represents 26 glass bottles, 26 corks, and foils and labels that never end up in a dumpster behind the bar,” Cranor says. “The kegs are reusable and provide wine drinkers with a fresh glass every time.

“When you break down all of the benefits of wine on tap, it quickly becomes a no-brainer. It’s about reduced waste and reduced production costs, which translates to reduced cost per glass to the consumer.”

Carrier remembers the number of bottles that were thrown out in a typical night when she worked at a wine bar in another state. “Keg wines really do lower the environmental footprint,” she says. “At the wine bar, we would take out dozens of trash cans on a busy night. We offered 36 wines by the glass, and it was a lot of fun with the flights, but the waste was huge.”

At Free Flow Wines, only reusable stainless steel kegs are offered. “Every new keg we put into service is like taking an average car off the road for two years,” Kivelstadt says of the positive environmental impact. “By using reusable kegs rather than one-way disposable kegs, we are able to deliver the same amount of wine, but with at least a 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions. A Free Flow Wines keg holds the equivalent of 26 wine bottles and each keg that goes into distribution will save 2,340 pounds of trash from the landfill over its lifetime.”

Jordan Kivelstadt and Dan Donahoe are the founders of Free Flow Wines, which provides ready-to-tap kegs for more than 300 wineries.
Jordan Kivelstadt and Dan Donahoe are the founders of Free Flow Wines, which provides ready-to-tap kegs for more than 300 wineries.

Variety and Value

In addition to the green aspect, for winemakers, putting wine in kegs instead of bottles allows them an opportunity to experiment with new blends.

“Our best wines are all currently on tap,” Hipper says. “It’s a great way to make exclusive, ultra-limited release wine blends in lots as small as 5 gallons. … [We can] experiment with new and different blends and combinations of wine to perfect them before a release or to give customers wines that are available only in extremely small lots. It allows for an exclusivity that you could never do in bottled wines.”

People also quickly realize there is no taste difference between bottled wines and those on tap, says Jason Raymond, general manager and sommelier at Stem Wine Bar in Marietta, Ga.

Stem Wine Bar patrons are often surprised after trying wine on tap, realizing that there’s no difference in taste from bottled wine.
Stem Wine Bar patrons are often surprised after trying wine on tap, realizing that there’s no difference in taste from bottled wine.

“They do naturally ask questions about how the system works, but once they taste the wine, they realize there is no difference from the way it tastes out of the bottle and they are amazed and it’s quickly accepted,” says Raymond, who particularly enjoys on-tap varietals from Oregon-based Chehalem as well as Iron Horse Vineyards and Scott Harvey Wines, both in California.

“Well-respected wineries like these are going to open the eyes of people to the quality of the wine-on-tap market,” he says.

On-tap wines have been a perfect fit for Davis Love Grill, Carrier says. Not only have they helped to eliminate bottle waste, but wine sales also have increased. And there’s another benefit—savings that are passed back to the guest.

“Buying and shipping a keg automatically lowers the cost and the waste,” she says, since there are no bottles and all the packaging that comes along with the bottles. “At Davis Love Grill, people can appreciate that they’re getting a high-quality product at a fraction of the price that they used to pay for it. It’s really an added value, and our members and guests recognize that.”

For example, the Frog’s Leap sauvignon blanc from a bottle normally retails for $18 by the glass, compared to $10 from the tap, she says. Each of the wines on tap at Davis Love Grill range between $8 and $13 a glass.

“The wines really help to refresh the restaurant and give it a new personality and style,” she says. “I think we began offering the wines at the right time. [At the same time,] I don’t know if I ever foresee tap wines dominating bottled wines in restaurants, but I could be wrong. People have definitely embraced it.”

Carrier says Davis Love Grill will continue to diversify its selection of wines on tap and likely will add more to its offerings in the coming year. And, no doubt, as more and more wine drinkers continue to fall in love with wines on tap, the popularity will continue to grow throughout the country.

“The brands and wines that are available on tap now are up to par with almost any restaurant’s wine list,” Kivelstadt says. “In 2014, you will see even more upscale brands start to keg their wines, which will provide even more options for consumers because you don’t always have to buy an entire bottle to get the glass of wine you want.”

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