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Rolling out the kegs: restaurants increasingly tap advantages while working out bugs.

Serving from a keg is one of the oldest ways to deliver wine, but it's obvious that drawing wine from a traditional wooden keg--even a small one--to fill glasses in a restaurant leads to oxidation and worse.

In the 1970s Anheuser Busch was ahead of its time by selling modern keg wine in steel containers under the Master Cellars name, but poor execution and low-quality wine doomed the effort. Inglenook also tried, but most producers settled for low-end wine in 20-liter bladders.

However, wine in non-wooden kegs has many advantages including cost and environmental benefits, so a growing number of restaurants and bars are now getting steel and plastic kegs from wineries. At least two companies have been created to tap into the potentially big market. A winery in the Veneto region of Italy, for example, sells more than a half-million case equivalents per year on tap.

The advantages are clear:

* Reduced packaging cost

* Reduced cost to the consumer

* Low oxidation and spoilage

* Lower shipping weight

* Reduced carbon shipping footprint

* No waste at the end of a bottle

Today's keg-wine suppliers typically use 20-liter stainless-steel soda syrup containers, but some use plastic resin containers, and at least a few use 15.5-gallon beer pony kegs.

Other wineries have taken another approach, supplying wine in a collapsible bladder; Boisset's DeLoach and Raymond brands hide a bag of red wine inside an ornamental wooden cask. (See "Pushing the Packaging Envelope," November 2009.)

Since Wines & Vines last covered the subject in depth in the May 2007, sales of wine on tap seem to have grown, especially in wine regions like Northern California and Oregon. Ironically, one of the biggest adopters of wine keg service is Two Urban Licks in Atlanta, which dispenses 42 wines from pony kegs by gravity.

Most suppliers and bars use inert gas to provide the pressure; it can't be carbon dioxide, which would carbonate the wine. Argon seems to be best, but nitrogen is more readily available and cheaper by volume.

In Napa Valley, a number of restaurants have experimented or adopted the approach: The Wine Spectator Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America, Silverado Brewing Co., Cuvee (which had six wines on tap), Oxbow Wine Merchant and, most recently, Fish Story, the local outpost of the Lark Creek Group.

Restaurants are motivated by offering interesting, hard-to-find wine at reasonable prices, not by selling plain, cheap wine.


One of the most ambitious keg wine producers is Free Flow Wines, which produces the Silvertap brand. It is based in Sonoma County and grows and sources sustainably farmed and organic grapes in some of California's top vineyard sites.

Silvertap Wines' founders and principals include Dan Donahoe, who has been in the wine business 20 years and also owns Teira Wines. Jordan Kivelstadt, director of production, worked at The Donum Estate and owns Qualia Wines, which uses grapes from his family's Kivelstadt Vineyard. Director of operations Greg Quinn has spent the past two decades working and studying wine within the restaurant business.

Restaurants in Northern California and elsewhere are pouring the wines, which come in all popular varieties.

Jordan Kivelstadt says they founded the company in July 2009. "Glass bottles don't make sense for wines by die glass. They're not perfect, and they're not economically friendly. They can lead to oxidized wines, and then there's the TCA issue."

Silvertap tested the concept during fall 2009 and rolled it out in early 2010. Quinn says they are now in nine states and have distributor commitments in an additional 15.

They've adopted a proprietary kegging system but borrowed concepts from breweries to maintain sanitation. The kegs are made from food-grade plastic, which Kivelstadt considers more environmentally friendly than stainless steel because of its lower weight and less energy used during manufacturing. He says that a full keg (26 bottles) weighs 47 pounds--about the same as a case of 12 750ml heavy-duty bottles and half as heavy as the steel equivalent.

Silvertap mostly goes through wine distributors, many of which also carry beer and are familiar with the technology and logistics.

Kivelstadt cautions that the kegs have to be cleaned and used properly. "We don't encourage keeping (them) longer than three months, and the wines should not be oxidative or reductive. He quotes a cost of packaging at less than $1 per bottle equivalent, compared to the typical cost of packaging used for better wines at about $2 including labels, corks, capsules, cases, etc.


Another company addressing the market is Vintap. President Michael Ouellette both brokers and distributes stainless-steel kegs, but doesn't have a Vintap brand. He has some "house" brands he can use if a conflict arises with a distributor selling bottled wines. He doesn't want keg wines to be stereotyped at the low end of the market, as has happened to some degree with screwcapped wines.

Ouellette, a well-known sommelier and restaurateur, says he looks for the same type of wines he sought for wine lists: varietal wines of interest such as estate wines.

He recognizes that some other companies are pushing the economics harder, but he says he can still deliver the wine for 20%-25% less than in bottles.

Among the wineries he's worked with are Saintsbury and Emilio's Terrace, and the restaurants include Fish Story. For now, he's focusing on the West Coast due to logistics issues like returning the kegs, but he's looking into a recyclable (not reusable) keg for the eastern markets.

It's still green, he notes: "It saves the packaging and weight of 26 bottles." As of January, VinTap has 1,400 stainless steel kegs in play.

Ouellette says that some wineries fill their own kegs, and others have him fill them at Ballentine Winery in St. Helena. "If we distribute the wine, we buy it and fill the keg. If we broker it, we don't buy the wine," he says.

He uses a series of portable tanks to hold it, moving down as necessary and checking sulfur dioxide each month. He adds that he sells the wine very quickly.

Ouellette says that wineries differ in their level of polish, and some filter the wine while others leave it unfiltered and unfined.

Challenges with keg wine

Peter Granoff, the managing partner of Oxbow Wine & Cheese Merchant in Napa's Oxbow Public Market, originally installed six draft lines--two dedicated to wine and four for beer.

"Now, 2.5 years later, we have six beers on tap and no wine. The demand for a broader assortment of draft beer pushed out one wine line, then ultimately both. This would have been an issue if we didn't have a good assortment of wines on the bar from bottle, but that is obviously not the case."

While it was the success of beer rather than problems with keg wine that caused Granoff to change, he describes the challenges in using keg wine. "The issues are finding producers who can properly tap off tanks to fill a keg and then deliver it in stable condition. We have also had some problems with tartrates accumulating in the line (the entire stretch is chilled from walk-in to bar tap), but our beer vendors are very good at cleaning those out and have been helpful. Being here in the valley and close to the producers has been enormously helpful. It would be a far more challenging endeavor at a distance," he adds.

Fish Story, which opened in Napa in fall 2010, has about half a dozen wines on tap. John Hulihan, vice president of beverage and service, says he first looked at the concept of wine on tap when the Lark Creek Restaurant Group decided to reposition the Lark Creek Inn into the more casual Tavern at Lark Creek. "Some other restaurants had wine on tap, but the wines did not have a great pedigree," he notes. "If we did it, I wanted to have great value and over deliver." He didn't want wines that were also available by the bottle but did want recognized producers. Hulihan acknowledges that Fish Story may someday get some less-well-known wines.

He actually drove the kegs around initially to have them filled. "We starred with old Coke and Pepsi canisters, but there were some leakage problems. Now we use a standard beer fitting, and people can wash and clean them properly."

He says the biggest issue is logistics. "Some deliver, and some I go get."

Fish Story sells the wines by the glass, half-liter and liter, giving a bit more bang for the customer's buck. They rinse out the tap quickly by letting it run a second before filling glasses or carafes.

Hulihan has a few warnings: "You have to use 304 stainless steel, not brass. And the lines are critical, they're being improved dramatically. You also have to taste the wine regularly." They put the wine on a 40-day watch but have never gotten near that point, as the wines sell quickly.

He is especially enthusiastic about having local wines, and he suggests people in the east look into that angle.

Words from winemakers

Chimney Rock Winery supplied some Fiano to Oxbow Wine Merchant in kegs. Doug Fletcher, director of winemaking for the Terlato Group, which owns Chimney Rock, says he saw the wine on tap there and asked Peter Granoff is he could supply him wine. Fletcher says they sold two kegs, then moved on to a keg or two of Rutherford Hill Winery Sauvignon Blanc.

Chimney Rock winemaker Elizabeth Vianna says that the Fiano, which comes from a small plot on the property, is not aged and it isn't filtered. Though she does cold stabilize it before filling the keg. "It doesn't tend to get reductive," she notes. "You treat the wine as if it's going into a screwcapped bottle. Make sure it doesn't need any oxygen to finish."

She adds that the winery uses the Fiano as a team-building effort. The grapes are picked and made into wine by the tasting room manager and cellar crew.

Chris Dearden, who now has his own consulting and wine company, says he filled keg wines at his former employer, Benessere, for Michael Fradelizio at Silverado Brewery Co., who was one of the first to adopt the idea, and for a few others.

"I love the idea and the exposure, and now wineries can actually sell the wine directly for a decent amount" he says ($50 per gallon in some cases). "When I was doing it for Silverado, it was for $20 per gallon and was more of a favor and a way to move some of our bulk wine."

Dearden says that in this economy, creative ways of selling wine are positive. "It is environmentally sound, as the kegs are 5 gallons versus 750ml bottles, and allows the restaurants to pour wine more affordably for the consumer and more effectively for their often tight-space considerations. It's a great way to get a placement on a list that would otherwise be difficult to obtain."

Jim Moore, who produces L'Uvaggio wines of Napa, Calif., supplied wine to Cuvee Restaurant in Napa, which had a number of wines on tap. He also provided red and rose to Oxbow Wine Merchant.

Moore prefers not to make much white wine, and what he does is lower alcohol and needs filtration. "For red, if it will be in the keg for over a year, it should be cold-stabilized and filtered." He adds, "The beer guys have this all figured out."

Doug Fletcher sums up the appeal of the kegs: "It is a great idea that should have stronger legs. If upscale wineries would get on the bandwagon, it would be lots of fun. It's green, a lower carbon footprint, and the wine stays fresher than pouring out of a bottle."

From the looks of things, a lot of wineries and restaurants agree.


* Keg wines are gaining popularity with restaurants and bars because they promise environmental, economic and quality benefits.

* Wine to go into kegs must be clean, with no reductive or oxidative elements or tartrates. Ideally should be filtered.

* Kegs are short-term containers--best for no more than three months, typically.
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Title Annotation:WINEMAKING
Comment:Rolling out the kegs: restaurants increasingly tap advantages while working out bugs.(WINEMAKING)
Author:Franson, Paul
Publication:Wines & Vines
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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