Tapping Into Wine

Two trends are fusing together in bars across the country: Wines on tap and local beverages.

Bluestem Brasserie, which has a 16-seat bar and 20-seat lounge offers 12 wines by the glass, all of them on tap and all from nearby Napa and Sonoma Valleys.

“Wine on tap really lends itself to local wines,” says Adam Jed, co-founder with his wife Stacy, “since kegs are tougher for wineries to ship—especially long distances.”

Wine on Tap
Beat Hotel - Photo Credit Brian Samuels Photography

Bluestem has six taps for red wines, five for white and one rosé, and in most cases the wines are made specifically for the bar/restaurant. “More wine makers are getting into it,” Jed says, “so it’s no longer just Franzia, which has clouded the market for years. It’s great juice.”

While wine on tap works really well for Bluestem and wine sales are strong, the real reason Jed decided to serve wine this way—in addition to bottles—“is that our concept was designed around a very European sensibility,” he says. “In small villages in France, you go down to the winery, wine shop, or vineyards and they fill up your jug. We wanted that same feel.”

There have been no downsides to offering wine on tap, he says. “Our waste is less, the wine is prepared as it is intended (i.e.: it’s fresh and not exposed to air), you save money (around $10,000 a year he estimates), you have better product, and your bartender has more time.” Bluestem goes through around 20 kegs a week “so that’s 500 bottles he’s not having to open.”

And the real plus side: Customers are drinking more “because they’re not counting corks,” Jed says. “When you order wine and the cork sits on the table you start to associate it with a volume of consumption. Customers also associate the liter volume that comes in their carafe as the same as a bottle, although it’s 30% more.

Serving wine by the carafe (half liter or liter) and by the glass also gives guests more options, Jed explains. “People move around a lot more in what they drink, and don’t feel confined to one wine.”

There are still some negative perceptions of tap wine, he says. “But I don’t think most people think twice about it.” He points out that if you order a glass of wine anywhere, it appears on your table, just the wine in the glass, “and there are no questions asked.” So it makes no difference whether that wine came from a bottle or a keg.

Helping improve the perception of wine on tap is what Jed serves. The wine makers he features include Paul Hobbs, whose Chardonnay runs $13 for a glass and the Russian River Syrah ($10) from Acorn Winery. His wines by the glass overall range from $9 to $14 “to keep my market interested.” These prices, he says, are not too inexpensive to keep the misconceptions alive.

Zach Tirone, general manager and beverage director at The LCL: Bar and Kitchen in New York City also fights with misconceptions. “Wine on tap is like screw cap was 10 or 15 years ago,” he says. “We treat the wine on tap as if it were coming out of a bottle. Customers have got to want to have a second glass at the end of the day.” His wines, all of which are also local, mostly sourced in New York state, run $12 to $14.

Often guests don’t even know the wine comes from a tap, Tirone says. “People sometimes ask for a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, for example, then are surprised when they know it’s come out of a tap. They are warming up to it but it’s never going to have the mystique or romanticism of putting a corkscrew into a bottle.”

And the sustainability movement is big, he points out. “With wines on tap there’s no cost of the cork, there’s no printing, less trash, less glass, and it’s well preserved.”

The LCL has been serving wine on tap for a year, as long as it’s been open, and there’s always been plenty of availability, Tirone says. “There’s plenty and enough to change it up regularly. We’re seeing more imported, too, especially out of Italy.”

He changes the wine he pours seasonally, and depending on what’s available, but overall, the tap is used for reds (mostly lighter bodied wines like cabernet franc or pinot noir), white or rosé wine, though white is most frequently featured. And the tap system just needs to be flushed through before the wine is changed. The bar has an outside company come and do this, once a month.

Bertil Jean-Chronberg’s reasons for serving tap wine at the two bars in the Beat Hotel, a brasserie (not a hotel) in Cambridge, Mass., are slightly different.

His goals were to offer high end quality wine by the glass, thereby making it available to more people; to serve wine at the right temperature and always fresh; to be able to offer a variety of wines by the glass, the half glass, and by the carafe (12.5 oz., or a half bottle).

Beat Hotel’s bars each have 24 taps, split evenly between red and white wines, and co-owner Jean-Chronberg hopes to double that amount within the next year to offer even more variety.

His wines are local in that they’re from the U.S. “It’s not to be patriotic but to recognize the quality of what we’re doing. We should support our great, small, serious craft wine makers,” he says, and 95% of them are put on keg especially for him.

And while it costs him (and thus the consumer) about 5% less to buy wines by the keg vs. the bottle, reducing costs is not his objective, he says. Costs to the customer are $9.50 to $14 per glass, but soon he’ll take that up a notch and offer wines up to $22 a glass.

This will help perceptions of wine on tap, he says. “Most consumers think wines on tap are designed to be cheap and are made in bulk, but they’re not.”

“We’re going to see more and more wine on tap,” says Jean-Chronberg. “We’ll see more selection, and we’ll see wines designed to replace the wine by the glass programs because wine on tap is the way to have quality wine and diversity.”

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