While most restaurants are familiar with serving beer on tap, wine on tap still seem to be a foreign concept. Common throughout Europe, the idea of serving wine through a keg system has been slow to catch on in America. Yet recently, wine-on-tap programs have begun appearing at a number of restaurants nationwide, revolutionizing both restaurant beverage programs as well as consumer drinking habits. This new trend of serving wine from kegs rather than traditional bottle service offers a number of benefits to both restaurants and patrons alike, but are these new kegged wines simply a fad or do they represent the wine programs of the future?
A cost-effective, sustainable alternative
It is estimated that 80% of wine sold in restaurants is through wine by the glass pours, yet this system inherently brings with it a great deal of wastage. Once a wine bottle has been opened, it is a ticking time bomb that must be served within a brief period of time before it is oxidized and therefore ruined. As such, margins are generally much higher on wines by the glass in order to account for this potential loss.
Restaurants choosing to incorporate wine-on-tap programs do not face such loss, as the keg systems are designed specifically to protect the wine from spoilage. When the keg is tapped, an inert gas pressurizes the wine to ensure that it does not come into contact with oxygen, thereby monumentally reducing wastage caused by oxidized bottles. As these restaurants are no longer losing money on wine bottles that have been open too long, they can offer wine-by-the-glass programs to their patrons at generally lower prices while still maintaining their profit margin.
From a winery standpoint, not having to individually bottle and label each wine is both cost effective and time efficient, not to mention much more environmentally friendly. The savings the winery receives in kegging their wines can then be passed along to the restaurants -- and eventually to the consumers -- allowing for higher quality wines to be purchased at a somewhat lower price point.
In addition to cost effectiveness, restaurants also benefit from these wine programs’ guarantee of consistency. As the kegs are designed to safeguard the wine, each glass poured should always taste the same (for better or worse), whether it is the first or last poured. Many of these keg systems are also designed to ensure consistency in serving sizes, pouring a standard amount each time, eliminating the dreaded “over-pour” and recording how many glasses were served. And as restaurants implementing wine-on-tap programs are not bound by traditional wine bottles, they are also able to offer their customers the option of ordering wine in a variety of sizes (carafes, liters, etc.) rather than just restricting them between the option of purchasing either a glass or a bottle.
Will wine bottles become a thing of the past?
Despite the numerous benefits of a wine-on-tap program, these systems do have their limitations. First and foremost, not all wines are suited to being kegged. As the kegs do not allow a wine to evolve, the wines that are offered on tap are wines ready to drink now. So while these systems may make a great alternative for a higher quality yet lower priced house wine, kegging an older vintage wine or “cellaring” a wine already in a keg is not possible.
Kegged wine is also not immune to common wine flaws, and the risk to a restaurant’s inventory is thus greatly magnified when you consider the loss of an entire keg of wine versus the possible loss of one or two wine bottles.
As wine-on-tap systems are a relatively new trend, there is also not currently a wide variety of wineries choosing to keg their wines. Companies such as California’s Free Flow and New York’s Gotham Project have been making great strides to bring kegs from high-quality, small production wineries into the market, but for now the options are still very limited. (Seek out kegs from Broc Cellars, Lioco and Scholium Project for exceptional wine-on-tap offerings.)
And finally, there is still the obstacle of perception. The tradition of tableside bottle service is a longstanding one and consumers may not yet be willing to part with the familiar ritual. There can also be a common misconception -- much like that surrounding wines with screw caps -- that wines on tap systems are of lower quality than those in bottles.
Yet while wine on tap programs still have a long way to go and many obstacles to overcome, they still offer enough benefits to make them a worthy consideration for your restaurant’s beverage program.