When the Kitchen [Next Door] opened in Boulder earlier this year, it didn't have a single bottle of wine on the beverage list. Instead, the restaurant installed a keg system from which it pours three whites and five reds. Frasca Food & Wine's Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson pursued a similar course when they opened Pizzeria Locale -- bottles are available, but the restaurateurs' Scarpetta is flowing from taps. In Denver, Lou's Food Bar has a keg house white and house red on the list; Linger offers three by-the-glass selections from a draft line; and the newest Elway's, up in Vail, is also installing taps for vino.
So is this a trendy fad, or is keg wine the next keg beer -- an evolution of the industry that's here to stay?
Andy Lum, who owns Unity Selections, a local wine distribution company (where I once worked), was one of the first to start selling keg wines that come from outside of Colorado. He says he's seen a major uptick in keg wine sales since he first started distributing it just under a year ago, not least because it's appealing to many local restaurants that are concerned with sustainability.
"The number one benefit people see is that it's very green," explains Lum. "And wineries are trying to figure out ways to make it more green." Kegging wine rather than bottling it, he explains, eliminates a lot of waste and packaging. One keg holds about 26 bottles worth of juice, and the containers are reusable -- in fact, wineries ask for them to be sent back and refilled.
The packaging system is also a cost-saving measure. "The savings for the winery is unbelievable," says the distributor. "They're saving $16 to $30 a case. If a restaurant is passing that along to the consumer, you're drinking a glass of wine that's at least a couple of dollars cheaper than it would otherwise be listed."
Not to mention that glass of wine is likely fresher than it would have been had it come from a bottle. "Every time you pull the tap, it's like uncorking the bottle," explains Lum. "So you're not getting a glass of wine from a bottle that may have been sitting open for a couple of days. It's like drinking wine straight out of the tank."
And that cuts down on wine waste for restaurants, too. "The biggest disadvantage of selling wine by the glass is the loss," he says. "But with kegs, you never have any loss."
Lum hopes that restaurateurs and bar managers will start taking advantage of what he sees as the biggest opportunity for keg wine: selling expensive, interesting wines by the glass because it's less risky. "Since you never have any waste, you can sell $25 glasses or even $100 glasses of wine. You're not going open a bottle of something expensive and eat two glasses -- you've got six months to sell out the keg."
Lum acknowledges that before that can happen, restaurants and consumers will need to change their mentality on keg wine, which is currently viewed mostly as a table wine. But he hopes to turn the tide, bringing in more wines from the West Coast and importing kegs from Europe to supplement what's available from Colorado wineries.
He also says future growth of the keg wine industry is contingent on technology for keg wine catching up with the wineries' desire to sell it. "Wineries are pushing things faster than technology," he explains. He cites refrigeration systems, new keg designs and systems that won't force restaurants to ship their kegs back to the wineries to have them filled (which will also eliminate the carbon footprint that keg wine is currently creating, making the system even more green).
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And then there are some technical things to be worked out on the restaurant side, too. "You can't just hook this up to your draft beer system," notes Lum. "It requires tap lines that don't allow air into the tank." He also says there are some temperature issues to solve, because a lot of tap wine is refrigerated with the beer -- and therefore goes into the glass too cold.
Still, he says, he continues to see more and more restaurants embrace keg wine, and he hopes the rise continues.
"Ultimately, you're getting a higher quality wine for a lower price. Selfishly, you should want to drink that."