An array of 16 kegs keeps wine flowiing smoothly at TAP in Atlanta.
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The Tapping Point

Jeffery Lindenmuth - June 2010

Economies of scale are convincing more restaurateurs to pass along savings to receptive clienteles by purchasing wine in kegs and going with the profitable flow.

It's a familiar barroom refrain: What's on tap? However, the reply is about to take an unusual twist, with spigots that spew not just pale ale, amber lager, and Belgian wit, but California Zinfandel and Finger Lakes Riesling. The latest trend in restaurant wine service takes a page from the beer barons, packaging quality wine in steel kegs. It's one of those forehead-smackingly obvious ideas that leading wine directors are declaring a potential game changer in the way we transport, sell, and serve wine.

Wine on tap is not the initiative of a large winery or distributor, but the brainchild of a restaurateur, with the first large-scale practical application appearing in, of all places, Atlanta. Six years ago, Todd Rushing, co-owner of Concentrics Restaurants, was touring wineries in Northern California and Oregon when he noticed errant kegs of wine, commonly used for topping off barrels or holding small experimental batches. Rushing began asking questions--specifically,"Would you sell me kegs of wine?" Early on, for every 100 wineries he would approach, he says, two might agree.

After some persistence, Rushing managed to open TWO Urban Licks in Atlanta in 2004 with an ambitious 42 wines on tap, split equally between reds and whites. Housed in a 26-foot-tall glass-and-steel temperature-controlled tower, the wines are driven by gravity and protected with a blanket of nitrogen or argon gas as they deplete. "I wanted people to see wine as a beverage that you can drink casually for lunch and dinner," says Rushing. "The kegs are a way to make wine enjoyment simple and affordable, to emphasize not the bottle, but what's in the bottle."

The logistics were anything but simple. After persuading wineries and distributors unaccustomed to handling large 15-gallon kegs (equivalent to about 57 liters or 76 bottles of wine), Rushing agreed to personally ship the empty kegs back to each winery via FedEx: "I had to convince people that this was a great way to transport more than six cases of wine. With no cardboard, no bottles, no corks, it is so efficient the cost of the keg is realized on the first shipment." Consumers needed less convincing. About 90 percent of wine sales at TWO Urban Licks come from wine on tap, thanks in large part to the early cooperation of prominent California wineries including Monticello Vineyards, Trefethen, Au Bon Climat, R. Stuart and Company, La Crema, and Steele Wines. Tap wines are offered by the half glass, glass, mini thief (10-ounce decanter), half thief (20-ounce decanter), and full thief (42-ounce decanter), with three tiers of pricing. Glasses, for instance, are $7, $10, and $12. TAP, another Concentrics spot, opened in Atlanta in 2007 with 16 wines on tap.

John Hulihan, vice president of beverage and service for Lark Creek Restaurant Group in San Francisco, chose tap wine as a way to declare the new casual approach when retooling Lark Creek Inn as Tavern at Lark Creek in mid-2009. On the day after Easter, Hulihan began phoning wineries, and he was soon in his truck, personally ferrying kegs of wine from Truchard Vineyards, Saintsbury, Paul Dolan Vineyards, and Qupé Wine Cellars. "We felt it was important that we establish the program with high quality wine," says Hulihan of the eight taps, divided four each for red and white.

Because whites tend to move from tank to bottle fairly quickly, they proved difficult to source in kegs, highlighting one challenge with tap wine over beer, which is less seasonally cyclical. "It remains a constant effort to locate wineries to be involved. I am always looking for like-minded individuals as a way to advance this, speaking about it to every winemaker and restaurant owner I meet," says Hulihan.

The tap wines at Tavern at Lark Creek are driven entirely by inert gas, as opposed to gravity, and are drafted from the same 1/6 barrel, or torpedo kegs, commonly used for boutique beer. Each holds just over five gallons, about 26 bottles of wine. By saving about 35 percent on the purchase price, Hulihan says Lark Creek is able to offer glasses that sell for $13 elsewhere for just $8 or $9. Above all, Hulihan admires tap wine for the taste: "It has a freshness and brightness that is not always apparent in the bottle, and it stays that way as you serve it."

This would all be an interesting novelty, were there not wine producers suddenly rising to the challenge and assisting restaurants in sourcing and pouring keg wines. San Francisco–based Silvertap provides kegs of wine to about 25 accounts--including Annabelle's Bar & Bistro, Salt House, Piatti (Roseville, CA), Ironside, and Fat Angel in San Francisco--with the capability to distribute kegs of wine in 10 states. Yet, the challenge to merge the disparate worlds of beer and wine looms large. "Fine wine distributors don't handle keg beer, so they don't know about keg deposits and gas and cleaning the lines. On the flip side, beer distributors don't reach the top sommeliers in the market," explains founding partner Greg Quinn, former wine director for Indigo Restaurant and Annabelle's.

At Silvertap Quinn works in partnership with co-founder/director of sales Dan Donahoe (owner of Sonoma County's Teira Wines), co-founder/director of production Jordan Kivelstadt (owner/winemaker of Qualia Wines), consulting winemaker Bill Knuttel (winemaker for Dry Creek Vineyard and Stromburg Vineyards), and vineyard manager Duff Bevill (vineyard manager for Merry Edwards Winery). This team of industry veterans currently offers Sauvignon Blanc Cry Creek Valley Woods Vineyard 2009, Merlot Sonoma County 2007, Chardonnay Sonoma County 2008, Zinfandel Sonoma County 2006, and Cabernet Sauvignon California 2008--all under the Silvertap label--with plans to add several more. Wholesale prices work out to about $6 to $10 per bottle.

Silvertap offers expertise in wine tap installations, noting some fundamental differences to beer instillation. First, the beer lines require glycol jackets to maintain the 36 degree temperature required for beer, whereas chilled white wines are optimally served at 40 to 45 degrees and thus do not require jackets. Inert nitrogen or argon is usually used in the wine kegs to prevent oxidation. And the gas pressure is much lower; in a direct draw, where the tap comes directly from the keg, it can be as low as one psi. Silvertap reports that kegs present a 20 to 25 percent savings in production costs over bottling. Coupled with the savings in transport and prevention of loss due to spoilage, cork taint, and other plagues of the bottle, Silvertap estimates savings to the consumer at 25 to 30 percent.

On the East Coast, Charles Bieler, a pioneer of innovative wine packaging behind Three Thieves Bandit wines in Tetra Pak, has joined with Bruce Schneider of Schneider Vineyards on Long Island to offer a Finger Lakes Riesling in a 1/6 barrel keg, available through New York distributor Michael Skurnik. The Riesling, dubbed Gotham Project, has already gotten the nod from top city sommeliers, appearing at the raucous opening of Paul Grieco's Terroir Tribeca wine bar and pouring at Daniel Boulud's DBGB, helmed by Dinex Group wine director Daniel Johnnes. "We're on the East Coast, and we're looking at local wines, but being close to Europe there is also the potential to import wine and package it locally," says Bieler.

A 1/6 barrel of Gotham Project wholesales for $200, the equivalent of about $7.50 per bottle. Bieler also allies with Leland Gas Technologies of New Jersey to assist restaurants in securing freestanding wine taps that operate on tiny canisters of argon. "These are ideal for New York restaurants that don't have existing tap systems, or where space is simply an issue," says Bieler. The system also appears ideally suited for catering and off-site events. Single kegs are also an ideal vehicle to offer wines that are unfined and unfiltered, or those produced in quantities otherwise too small to merit bottling, labeling, and distribution. Restaurants may soon lure customers with exclusive wines, previously found only at the winery.

Emily Wines, director of wines for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, is adding tap wine to four Kimpton properties this summer: "We're intrigued by both the cost savings and the environmental aspects that fit really well into our EarthCare Program. Every night we have all these empty glass bottles that no customer has even seen, mostly because by-the-glass wine is so popular." Silverleaf Tavern in New York City will offer Silvertap wines, using Pyrex lab equipment as carafes to offer different volumes of a house red and a house white. At Washington, D.C.'s Poste Moderne Brasserie, Wines plans to utilize a kegerator on the patio, encouraging diners to sip cool draughts of Sauvignon Blanc or lightly chilled Zinfandel. "On our side, we're doing what we need to do to get the taps in and work with the different state laws," she explains. "As bigger wineries come online, I can see us taking this across the country. It's fun to be on the edge, and tap wine promises to be a tsunami," says Wines.