Warming Up to Wines on Tap
Ten years ago, Todd Rushing’s peers questioned his notion to tap wine from a keg at TWO urban licks, the restaurant he owns in Atlanta.
“Everybody thought I was nuts,” Rushing says. “There’s still romanticism of wine. There’s the idea of the white-gloved server who shows you the bottle, but what do you do with the bottle once it’s empty? The beer group got it right a long time ago.”
Yet today—claiming to be the country’s first restaurateur to offer wines on tap—he’s a visionary with 70 selections on tap. Increasingly, more eateries are adopting the method, many within the last two or three years, and in a high-volume environment, wines on tap contribute to efficiency. Serving time is significantly reduced because it takes less time to tap a keg or pour from a machine than it does to retrieve and uncork a bottle, then toss it in the recycling bin. Another argument for wines on tap is longer preservation times, typically up to four weeks.
The most popular method is a glass-walled machine housing upright bottles that, through a siphon, release pours of different sizes. Producers include Micro Matic, Cruvinet, and Enomatic.
Another option is stainless-steel kegs. Much like beer, the kegs tap directly into customers’ glasses. It’s an improvement over wine bottles because there is less wine wasted. “If you’re not able to sell [all the wine from a bottle in a specified] time period, it turns to waste,” says Ken Henricks, president of Bottleneck Management in Chicago, owner of Old Town Pour House and Howells & Hood. Using the keg and tap system, he says, “You can get 100 percent yield out of the 5-gallon container.”
Since opening 18 months ago, the Mexican restaurant Kachina in Westminster, Colorado, has had four kegs—two for red wine, two for white—all stored at cellar temperature thanks to a digital temperature read-out on the unit. “The wine doesn’t oxidize. It stays nice and fresh … for the next guest that orders it,” says Derek Lewis, general manager at Kachina. When drink orders start piling up on a busy night, the keg system enables faster turnover. Plus, after they are empty, the kegs can be easily refilled, making the concept very eco-friendly.
However, at Kachina, Lewis notes, “The selection of wines by the bottle far exceeds those that are in kegs,” adding his favorites have been Acrobat by King Estate’s Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir (Oregon). Within the last year he added Paul Dolan Vineyards Chardonnay (Mendocino County, California) and Artezin Zinfandel (Mendocino County, California). “The fruitier reds, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, tend to go a little better with our cuisine,” Lewis says.
At TWO urban licks, wine pours are available in three sizes: by the glass, in a decanter (the equivalent of three glasses), or by the thief (five glasses). Most of the selections are domestic wines, with a few from Italy and Argentina.
Compared with bottles, the tap choices are certainly limited, but in the last 10 years, Rushing has seen the number of tap options expand to the point that he can now offer customers variety. “More and more wineries are involved,” he says. Another improvement that supports more variety is that the kegs have become smaller, enabling more turnover. Ten years ago, Rushing says kegs typically held 15 gallons, while today they hold five gallons, making it easier to build a diverse list.
“Four or five years ago it was nearly impossible [to find a good selection],” Henricks says. Consistent labels on the keg list at Bottleneck Management restaurants include Hess (Monterey, California), Singlo (Italy), Milbrandt Vineyards (Washington), Baileyana Winery (Edna Valley, California), and Tablas Creek Vineyard (Paso Robles, California).
“Unfortunately, there’s a negative stigma about kegged wine,” he adds. “The uneducated public views it as a lower-quality version, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.” To help assuage that misconception, he serves the wine in a flask, equivalent to three glasses of wine.
For customers who might be hesitant to try tapped wine, waitstaff at TWO urban licks promote free pours of any wine to entice them to decide on a glass. And since the restaurant doesn’t have to uncork a bottle for the samples, there is no loss in revenue. In fact, the sample pour might nail a second pour of the same wine.
Diners love it, too. “It’s a great way to try a lot of wines and not feel like you’re breaking the bank,” says Brigette Breitenbach, co-owner of Black Sheep in Milwaukee. Open one year this month, Black Sheep has worked to brand the place as a destination for wine lovers, and a 16-bottle Enomatic system achieves just that. “It has made us an approachable bar for people who like wine but don’t know a ton about it,” she says.
Above each wine at Black Sheep is a card detailing tasting notes, written by either the general manager or wine distributors who know the wine well, plus a diagram explaining how to use the Enomatic. Without the machine, says Breitenbach, it would be difficult to offer an extensive wine list. “It’s hard to do that by the glass and have all these bottles open. Our general manager tasks our wine reps to find small-production wines, things you’re not going to find in a grocery store,” she says, with by-the-glass prices running up to $18.
Black Sheep also caters to wine aficionados; even higher-priced wines like Hook & Ladder, which is rarely available by the glass, can easily be placed in the machine, because it won’t go bad as quickly.
“It’s hard to [offer expensive wines] by the glass and have all those bottles open,” Breitenbach says.
Rushing, of TWO urban licks, concurs, saying it’s important that the fifth glass still tastes like the first. “You don’t have that with wine in the keg. You don’t run the risk of oxidization.”
Placing the kegs or wine-dispensing machines prominently tells diners a restaurant is serious about its wine. At TWO urban licks, a 30-foot, custom-built, backlit tower houses 70 kegs, evenly split between red and white wines. It is entirely temperature-controlled, with the red wines kept at 64 degrees Fahrenheit and the whites at 52 degrees Fahrenheit. “It’s a focal point for this restaurant,” Rushing says. “When you walk in, it’s the first thing you see.”
“The presentation is a talking point,” agrees Henricks, adding that it’s as compelling as any art on the walls.
Marketing the concept in-house and to potential customers is also key. “We try to feature [wines on tap] during the chef classes we host,” says Lewis, who also entices guests with half-price wines on draft during happy hour.
Black Sheep broadcasts across social media, especially using its Facebook page, each time the wines in its Enomatic machine are switched. Bottle sales on Tuesday, when bottles are half-off, are also accelerated because samples can be sipped for a few bucks before splurging on the bottle.
Finally, Lewis advises taking time to educate the waitstaff because it’s up to the servers to describe the benefits and help guests understand wines on tap. “It helps our restaurant appear to stay on the forefront of trends,” he says.