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Draft wine: Lower cost and greener too

The idea is similar to beer on tap. Wineries fill kegs with wine, and restaurants dispense the wine via a tap at the bar. The strategy boasts several green, operational and marketing advantages.

Wines on tap are an emerging trend, especially in wine country. Pioneers include the two Father’s Office restaurants in Los Angeles, Farm at Caneros Inn in Napa, Tap in Atlanta, Left Foot Charley Wine Bar in Traverse City, Michigan and the Tavern at Lark Creek in Larkspur, California.

“On the culinary side, we subscribe to the farm to table idea. I call the tap program, from the ‘vine to table,’” says John Hulihan, VP of beverage and service for the San Francisco-based Lark Creek Restaurant Group.

The idea is similar to beer on tap. Wineries fill kegs with wine, and restaurants dispense the wine via a tap at the bar. The strategy boasts several green, operational and marketing advantages.

“In a more casual and informal operation, wine on tap can be very exciting and innovative on a host of levels,” declares Michael Green, president and creative director of the Liquid Assets Consulting Group. “One, there’s less of a carbon footprint. Two, the unusual dispensing technique can be an interesting marketing concept. And three, in certain cases, operators are able to pass on savings to the customer.”

Affordable choices

When Lark Creek Restaurant Group launched the Tavern at Lark Creek in the space that formerly housed the Lark Creek Inn last June, the new focus was on affordability and value. Wines on tap fit those criteria. Buying wines by the keg directly from the producers realizes cost savings that Hulihan is able to pass along to customers. “We’ve been able to offer really high-quality wines for a reduced price,” he explains.

The Tavern’s tap system uses five-gallon stainless steel Cornelius tanks, aka soda kegs. The wineries clean and fill the kegs with wine straight from their tanks and barrels. At the restaurant, the kegs are hooked up to lines and taps, much like beer systems; whites are refrigerated and reds are temperature controlled. Because the system is airtight, driven by inert argon gas, the integrity of wine is protected throughout the process.

When Hulihan started the tap program last spring, he had to investigate sourcing.

“Wineries weren’t budgeting any part of their production for tap programs,” he recalls. That picture is slowly changing. “The more the word gets out about tap wine, the more traction it builds.”

Greening wine

Winemakers are especially enthusiastic about the green aspects. The tap system eliminates the need for glass bottles, labeling and cardboard cases. Transportation costs are reduced, too.

“The low-carbon footprint of tap wine systems may appeal to some customers,” points out Green, “while other customers might like the novelty or the lower cost per ounce.” However, it’s up to operators to identify those features and translate that ultimate benefit to the customer, he advises.

Customer curiosity

“Once customers are aware of the tap program, there’s a high level of curiosity about it,” says Hulihan. “And most have been pleasantly surprised about the quality of the wine.”

Although Green thinks tap wines may work for informal restaurants, he believes that the fine-dining practice of presenting the bottle at the table and pouring wine in front of customers is never going to go away. “Rituals enhance the dining experience,” he claims. For his part, Hulihan believes that the success of a tap program depends upon countering consumer perceptions that tap wines are anything but high quality.

“Our chardonnays, for example, are fresh, unfined and unfiltered, straight from the winery’s tank to our tanks to our guests,” he points out. “This is a unique experience that you won’t get from a bottle.”

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