A few years ago, we received a request from Chef Todd Rushing of the Concentrics Restaurant Group in Atlanta asking if we'd consider bottling... er kegging... one of our wines for him. It didn't make sense at the time since we were ten months away from bottling, but it got us thinking. And now, a year and a half later, we've taken the plunge, and put together six kegs of the 2009 Cotes de Tablas Blanc for Concentrics to pour by the glass. The kegs are sitting in our winery, waiting for transport (right).
The prospect of fine wine in kegs has been starting to get some press, with recent articles touting the development in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Post, among others. There are several reasons why serving wine from kegs is appealing from the perspective of both producer and restaurant.
Since the liquid in the kegs is replaced by a neutral gas (typically carbon dioxide or nitrogen) as it is pumped out, the wine is never exposed to oxygen and the last glass from a keg should be just as fresh as the first was. Freshness is always an issue with wines by the glass; assuming a restaurant gets five glasses from a typical bottle, how often is that restaurant going to finish the night having emptied their bottle completely? About one-fifth of the time, by my quick calculation. The rest of the time, that bottle will sit overnight, oxidizing, and anyone who orders it the next day has a decent chance of being disappointed.
It's easy to complain about the prices that restaurants charge for their by-the-glass wines. I've done it myself on this blog. The typical model, by which restaurants charge their cost for each glass of wine, means that if they sell every glass, they can expect a roughly 400% profit. But it's rare that restaurants actually realize this sort of profit. Restaurants expect to dump out the remains of most bottles that are less than half full at the end of the night, or any bottle that's been open more than two days. For restaurants with the largest by-the-glass lists, these costs can be substantial. For the same reason that kegs preserve freshness, they eliminate waste.
Wine, moreso than most restaurant purchases, comes with a lot of packaging. Unlike what you or I might purchase in a grocery store, most restaurants receive their meat, fish and vegetables unpackaged, in bulk. Same with their drinks: beer comes in kegs, soft drinks in concentrated canisters that will be mixed with carbonated water before service. Only hard liquor and wine typically comes individually packaged. And that packaging -- with a bottle, a label, a cork and a capsule for every 750ml of liquid, and a cardboard or wooden box for every dozen bottles -- adds up. These bottles and cases are thrown out or recycled at the end of each night. A lot of mess, and a lot of mass, is created in the effort to get this liquid in good shape from the winery to the restaurant's table. What's more, for wines by the glass, the consumer never even sees the packaging. Glasses are typically poured behind the bar and arrive at the table package-less. Kegs solve the waste problem elegantly. They are emptied and returned to the winery for refilling.
All this packaging does not come free. The bottles, capsules, labels and corks account for about $19 per case on our least-expensive package (our screw-cap-finished Cotes de Tablas). Since each 15.5 gallon keg contains the same volume of wine as 6.46 cases, each keg eliminates about $122 in packaging costs. This savings, as well as the savings from not having wasted wine, can be passed on to customers. Sure, kegs aren't free. But since they remain the property of the winery and can be reused almost infinitely, they're an up-front investment rather than a recurring cost.
So, why don't more wineries -- and more restaurants -- use kegs? Because the technology is so new that it hasn't yet standardized. Each restaurant group who has installed keg wine has had to design and install their own system, typically some modification of a beer delivery system. Some rest on their sides, which means that we have to install tubes on the inside that flex down to get the wine at the bottom. Others are upright. Some pressurize their kegs to get the product out, others use gravity. And these differences have meant that wineries can't just put their wine in kegs and wait for orders. They need to know which restaurant is interesting in which wine, and how much, and then put that in kegs when the rest of the wine is put into bottle. We bottle each of our wines once a year. We can't safely store small amounts of wine waiting to see if they will be ordered by keg, and we obviously don't want to un-bottle wine just to put it into keg. Neither can we easily bottle kegged wine that might for some reason not be used; bottling trucks are expensive to rent and take a long time to set up, and are never going to be practical for lots of 10-50 cases.
But if we knew that all (or most) restaurants used the same sorts of kegs, and could plan to go out and market our wine that way? We'd probably dedicate a portion of our production of the wines we currently target for by-the-glass business to keg, and then go out and market them. Wouldn't that be nice?
Of course, kegs won't replace bottles for wines meant to be aged. Or for high-end wines that will only ever be sold by the bottle. But for wines by the glass, I can't think of a more appealing development during my time in the wine business. I hope that in the next few years we'll see a standardization of the kegs and the tapping systems, and can dive seriously into the business of delivering reliable, high-quality wines to the glasses of thirsty restaurant customers everywhere.