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Inside wine kegs

For years, wine service in restaurants has centered around bottles: either full bottles sold from a wine list or by-the-glass service from open bottles. But for many operators, keg wine dispensing systems are providing a good alternative.

These wine-on-tap systems work like the beer-on-tap systems already used in many bars and restaurants. Wine goes from the vintner to a distributor, where it’s filled into 20-liter stainless steel kegs. At the restaurant, a plastic tubing system connects the kegs to a special tap dispenser, and a gas (usually nitrogen or argon) pumps the wine through the system into the glass.

Operators are finding many reasons to move to wine-on-tap service. For Matchbox, a casual chain with six units primarily in the Washington, D.C., area, it became a point of differentiation. “We wanted to offer something new in our store openings,” says John Donnelly, operations manager for Matchbox, which has wine on tap in its two newest locations. “Wine on tap, while it’s been very popular in other areas, was relatively new to [our] market,” he says. Michael Leviton, chef-partner of Area Four, a brasserie concept in Cambridge, Massachusetts, found that wine on tap delivered cost savings he could pass on to customers, a good value proposition. “We were hoping it would allow us to serve a better caliber of wine at a more affordable price,” he says.

Drink long and prosper

A major advantage to keg wine systems is extended product life. Equipment manufacturers claim a 60-day lifespan for wine in a keg. While that might be a stretch, the drinkable period for wine on tap is indeed longer than that of bottled wine. “Open a bottle of wine and you have a very limited amount of time when that wine is at its peak,” says Leviton. “Depending upon the [type of] gas you have in your [tap] system, you can keep wines fresh and alive for a month.”

A matter of taste

Wine on tap makes wine sampling and wine flights more feasible for the average operator. With an unfamiliar concept like wine on tap, allowing customers to sample before making a selection can ease qualms they may have about quality. And wine flights may have particular appeal to younger customers. “Millennials like to sample; they like to try new things,” says Donna Hood Crecca, senior director of Technomic’s Adult Beverage Resource Group. Crecca points to research that shows sales and acceptance of wine in nontraditional packaging (such as on-tap and boxed) are growing.

Yet with some diners at Area Four, Leviton finds there’s still a stigma attached to wine that doesn’t come from a bottle. “People have ingrained habits and ingrained expectations,” he says. At Matchbox, that resistance was overcome through sampling and staff training. “We have  a lot of conversations about wine on tap with guests,” says Donnelly, who notes that eight “draft wines,” as they’re called on the Matchbox menu, now make up 70 percent of overall wine sales.

Red, white and green

For restaurants promoting sustainability, wine on tap provides a “green” selling point. One 20-liter keg holds more than 25 standard 750-milliliter bottles, saving on transport and bottle manufacturing, and the empty kegs are returned to for cleaning and refilling.

Operationally, wine-on-tap systems can be a mixed blessing. Storing keg wine takes up less space than storing cases of bottles, but as with any piece of specialized equipment, this system of tubes and dispensers requires waitstaff training and a dedicated cleaning regimen. Crecca suggests that newbies “talk to the beer bar guys” to get input on how the systems work.

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