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No one thinks twice about drinking beer on tap. But what about wine?
Wine served from a keg has a long-standing history in Europe; but here in North America, wine on tap has been brought to the market and failed on multiple occasions, and it wasn’t until very recently that the concept began catching on in a sustainable way.
The fact is, a growing number of restaurants and bars are putting kegs of wine behind their bars, pouring wines by the glass from a tap. Milwaukee area establishments like Bernie’s Tap in Waukesha, Balzac Wine Bar, Braise, Camp Bar in Shorewood, The Ruby Tap in Wauwatosa and Rumpus Room all offer wines on tap.
For winemakers, keg storage is a natural part of the process. During fermentation, wine is often held in large steel tanks. And kegging it is the perfect way to continue storing wine that isn’t ready for bottling. It’s also a convenient way to ship wine to purveyors.
But, despite the increasing prevalence of the practice, it seems there are quite a few myths that need to be dispelled about tap wine.
Myth 1: Tap wines are the same as "house wines"
One of the biggest myths about tap wines is that they’re of lesser quality. Consumers tend to equate tap wines to "boxed" wines, which came on the market generally offering a lower price-point, and often lower quality, for consumers.
But wines on tap are not necessarily "value wines." As more highly respected wineries like Au Bon Climat and Qupé have begun putting their wine into kegs, the perception that only low quality wines come in kegs is being dispelled. Even so, the process is slow moving.
"Only certain producers are making wines in keg right now so it's a bit limited in what you can get," says Brooke Boomer of The Ruby Tap in Wauwatosa.
In part, this is due to the limitations of kegs. Young, fresh wines that are ready to drink and do not benefit from aging are the best candidates for kegging. Fortunately, such wines make up nearly 90% of all wines produced.
Bernie’s Tap Room and Restaurant opened in October of 2012. Since they feature 23 craft beers on tap, they thought it was a great idea to offer wines on tap as well.
"Putting wines in kegs and shipping them to a restaurant started years ago by various companies," explains Bob "Bernie" Bernhardt of Bernie’s Tap Room. "But it wasn’t until some of the more respected wineries started to keg their wines that the industry and public started to accept this way of serving wine."
Bernie’s currently offers wines from three California sources: Paragon Vineyard, Vinum Cellars and Silvertap.
Natalia Hackbarth of Camp Bar in Shorewood first encountered wine on tap while traveling in the San Francisco area.
"We really enjoyed them," she says. "So when our wine distributor, Tom Vaughan of AVA Wines and Spirits told us he distributes the wine on tap, we jumped on the idea of carrying it at Camp! At the time only eight restaurants and bars in Wisconsin carried them."
Camp refers to their tap wines as "flowing wines," and their selection includes a Washington State Riesling and red blend, along with a California Chardonnay and Cabernet.
Myth 2: Tap wines "taste different" than wine from a bottle
"There is no taste difference between tap wines and bottles," says Dave Swanson, Chef and Owner of Braise Restaurant. "The system uses inert gases that don't impart flavor."
And he’s right. In fact, the main benefit for consumers partaking in tapped wines is freshness. In a standard wine-by-the glass program, restaurants often keep an opened bottle around for hours or days. Instead, with the tap system, the wine is always available at a consistent and impeccable level of quality.
"Tap wine is the freshest way to drink wine from the vineyard to the glass," Hackbarth explains. "During the keg process it never touches oxygen, which starts the oxidation phase of wine."
Oxygen is wine's invisible enemy, and when a wine gets exposed to air, it becomes "oxidized." The result is flat, lifeless wine with a lack of fruitiness and a vinegar-like flavor. Keg wine is automatically protected from this flavor breakdown, ensuring a better, more consistent glass of wine every time.
"The wines taste great and there are some great options out there," Boomer agrees. "We have compared the same tap wine to the wine in the bottle and actually love the taste of the tap better than the bottle."
Boomer says she already sees consumers latching on to the trend and getting more familiar with tap wines as a concept.
"We love the cult following that some of the wines are starting to have," she says. "We have a lot of regular customers who love the variety of wines that are in the machines, but one of the first things they do when they walk in is check to see what we have on tap and if it's one of their favorites then they go right for that."
Myth 3: Kegged wine is just a marketing ploy
This simply isn’t true. In fact, in addition to consistent flavor and quality, there are several compelling economic and environmental benefits to kegs.
Keg containers are 100% reusable, eliminating package waste; once the kegs are empty, they're returned to their respective wineries to be cleaned and reused. In addition, nitrogen is used to keep the wines fresh, ensuring that there is no product waste.
"Keeping the wine pressurized allows us to serve a great glass of wine from the first to the last drop without worrying that it has gone bad over time," Bernhardt says.
Even more compelling, kegs weigh less than glass bottles, so less energy is used getting the product from one place to another.
"The biggest reason we offer wine on tap is to reduce waste," Swanson explains. "Instead of throwing away bottles and cardboard boxes, we're simply reusing containers. It's more cost-effective for both the winery and restaurant."
Not only do kegs of wine offer the advantage of less packaging, they also ensure that a bar or restaurant can use every last drop of the wine they purchase, which makes offering individual glasses of wine a great deal more economical. Braise currently offers four wines on tap, two whites and two reds. They use these as the base for their glass pour program, which includes 10 wines.
According to Boomer, kegs of wine last for about three months on average and taste just as fresh on the last day they’re served as the first day they’re opened.
"It takes us about a week to a month to get through a keg (depending on the wine) and the freshness of the wine is always consistent," she says.
Using tap wines also means that establishments avoid one of the pitfalls of traditional bottled wine, and that’s a certain percentage of loss due to "corked" wines.
From a business perspective, the equipment investment is low and takes much of the worry out of the operators’ hands compared to the proper wine storage guidelines for bottled wine. This means establishments can offer a higher quality product at a more affordable price for consumers.
Using kegs allows restaurants to have a little flexibility in how they serve wine—small tasting glasses are suddenly more economical, and large parties can order carafes rather than a bottle.
"We can offer more unique wines by the glass at a value that wouldn't be feasible by the bottle pour," Swanson explains.
The overall reduction in use of glass and cork is a major savings and cost reduction in that those materials are also hard to recycle.
Myth 4: Tap wines are just a trend; this too shall pass
Having wines on tap has gotten plenty of press lately, mostly for its sheer novelty value. But serving wine on tap is about more than being trendy. And restaurateurs and bar owners seem to think the tap wine trend is going to last.
"We originally saw tap wines in Chicago," Boomer says. "And we liked the idea. We wanted to do something different. We know tasting wine out of the machines isn't for everyone and wanted to be able to offer another option for people. We for sure think it will last because more and more producers have recently been coming out with keg wine. In this quarter alone we've heard from three new producers that will be making keg wine."
Bernhardt agrees wholeheartedly.
"As more wineries continue to keg their wines and the public sees that these are great-tasting wines, I believe that the industry will continue to grow," he says.
Swanson agrees. He also cites environmental impacts as another reason kegs are here to stay.
"True cork is of limited supply," he says. "So we contribute to helping eliminate the environmental demands of harvesting cork by utilizing viable alternatives."
Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.
Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.