Tapping Into the Future of Wine
There are times when Chef John Franke will glance around his restaurant and see a table of four sharing 20 glasses of wine. There might be five, perhaps six appetizers, with more on the way. Does this sound like a concept geared toward millennials or high rollers with bottomless bank accounts?
Welcome to the evolving world of wine on tap in the 21st century. In the past, vino was constrained to a cork or a cardboard container. And the latter was essentially synonymous with college parties and get-togethers where expectations were, to put it lightly, a bit diluted. Craft beer by the tap—once a fanciful conception in its own right—is now being offered by the hundreds at some restaurants. Why not wine? It’s a question Franke and his general manager, Justin Beam, are asking, along with a growing number of operators around the industry.
In late August, Franke and Beam helped open Sixty Vines, a concept from the Front Burner Restaurant Group, in Plano, Texas. The idea was five years in the making, Beam says, and constructed around six words: Wine Country cuisine, and wine on tap. The central theme, undeniably, revolves around those final three.
Of the sixty taps in the restaurant, 40 pour wine. A nitro cold brew coffee from Stumptown comes through another, and 19 beers, including three from the company’s brewery, flow out the rest. In addition, there are 12 Coravin systems, which basically turn traditional bottles into taps by pressuring the bottle with argon gas, which in turn prevents oxygen from entering the equation. The result is 60 different wines available by the glass. Overall, there are 125 labels and counting, and guests can try as many as they want, in different sizes, throughout one experience.
“People love it. It’s very interactive and it’s definitely a huge benefit for the guest,” Beam says.
Volume is not the defining factor, he adds. When devising the concept, Sixty Vines paid serious heed to wine’s rather particular relationship with consumers. A telling sign: one of the questions Beam frequently fields is whether or not the restaurant fills their own kegs. That would suggest guests believe the restaurant is hand-pouring wine from bottles into the stainless steel. Simply put, they’re surprised tap wine can taste this good.
“Almost every wholesaler now has a portfolio of wine in keg,” Beam notes. “And we order them. We’ve done a lot of work in the last 15 to 18 months leading up to this not to just have your standard wine in the keg but to have some special stuff.”
Ideally, Sixty Vines stocks 75 percent domestic and 25 percent international. There are wines from New Zealand, California, Sicily, Austria, Texas, Argentina, Germany, Oregon, and more. Not to mention, since the product is selling more rapidly than expected, it quickly rotates—just like a typical restaurant’s beer program.
This versatility has a direct impact on the menu as well. As Chef Franke points out, diners will often build their meal around their wine, or vice versa. For instance, if someone is eager for a steak, they’re likely to turn to red. And a strong contingent of people, especially younger guests, budget for only one nice glass per meal, perhaps saved for the entrée. Wine on tap reimagines this process completely, Chef Franke says. Since Sixty Vines offers 2.5-ounce pours, guests try different vintages, colors, regions, grape varieties, and so on—by the course, not by the night.
In response, Chef Franke composed a menu that is just as pliable as the wine. Nothing is too spicy, too salty or too bitter. “We try to take ingredients that are simple and memorable and full of flavor, but not too far right or too far left,” he explains.
Servers are educated to open this door to a vast world of pairings. On top of the plethora of flavor profiles, they can also recommend price point alternatives to match any budget. That has made the kitchen’s job easier, too.
“It’s been no challenge. It’s been only fun,” Chef Franke says. “It’s been incredibly easy to match this food with wine. And having all this wine on tap, you don’t have to open a whole bottle to find out. We can take a little sip of one and say, ‘OK, that matches.’ Instead of going, ‘Let’s take the cork off and hope we sell it tonight.’”
Speaking of finances, Beam says the wine-on-tap model keeps the restaurant’s inventory flowing. They don’t have to wait for that one special guest to come in and order a four-figure bottle previously gathering dust on the shelf. Instead, Sixty Vines has no qualms about putting these kinds of destination labels into the Coravin. Recently, a 31-year-old Bordeaux was being offered at $100 a glass—a far more accessible entry point, he says. They also have three Rosé wines and a red sangria currently available, as well as a sparkling wine.
“We can pour really any size the guest wants,” Beam says. “Our menu has a half glass, a full glass, a quartino, a standard bottle, and a liter. … It’s been unbelievable. We’ve seen it more than we thought we’d see it. Wine is just flowing out of the taps, flying off the shelves. However you want to describe it. I talk about how many wines we have in bottle but, currently, about a month into the restaurant opening, we’ve just been so blessed. I would say about 90 percent of what we’re selling is from the taps and not from the bottles.”
Originally, the concept was drawn up with millenials in mind. Sixty Vines is a perfect match for the socialize-and-graze generation. So far, however, the audience has been much broader, Beam reports. Credit that to the quality, which he admits caught some diners off guard early on. “There was a little concern in the beginning,” he says. “Is there going to be pushback? Are guests going to think the wine is not very good? But guests have embraced it. I think the proof is in the pudding. If the wine tastes great and is of a great quality, and we spend a lot of time sourcing it, I think people will recognize and appreciate that. And they have.”
Sixty Vines also offers wine in its purest craft form. They linked up with longtime California winemaker Bill Knuttel for a custom Vine Huggers label offered only at the restaurant. Sourced from single vineyard fruit, there is a Sauvignon Blanc, “Au Naturel” Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, 50/50 Blend, Cabernet Sauvignon, and “Old Vine” Zinfandel. “You can’t get them anywhere else in the world, in bottle or keg. But we wanted them to be about three quarters up the scale from the price point in each category,” Beam says. “We’ve had a hard time keeping them in stock to be honest with you.”
The final note, which Sixty Vines displays proudly online, is the sustainable nature of tap wine. As of Tuesday, the restaurant says it has saved 7,800 bottles from landfills thanks to its tap system. “No oxidation, no corkage, and no spoilage means no waste,” it reads on the website. Pressurized kegs keep wine from spoiling and actually boost service time since corks are absent from the process. Each keg is reused and, according to Sixty Vines, saves 26 bottles from going into the landfill—or 2,340 pounds of trash over its lifetime of 35 years.
Wines can be perfectly temperature controlled inside a stainless steel keg, which keeps light and oxygen out.
“No corks. No glue. No cardboard. No plastic. No paper,” Beam says. “… It’s just the right thing to do. And a lot of people talk about recycling and making other positive changes. Wine on tap is inherently, extremely sustainable, and a green way to do things, and we’re very proud of that.”