Last week, I walked out of my office on my way to the mezzanine level of our cellar, on which we keep a few cases of each of our bottled-but-not-yet-released wines. I was looking for samples of our 2022 Patelin de Tablas Rosé, 2022 Dianthus, and 2022 Vermentino, to write tasting notes for our website in anticipation of the wines' release announcements.
[Pause for a moment. Hooray for new wines! We've never been as scarce on wine as these past couple of months. I am always excited for the release of our rosés, but it's all the more exciting this year. If you've been looking disconsolately at our online shop as I have, wishing most of the wines didn't say "sold out", the cavalry is, at long last, on its way.]
I got about halfway to the mezzanine before I realized I didn't have to open a bottle. I took a right turn into our tasting room, walked up to the new tap system we installed last month, and poured myself tastes of each of the three wines out of keg. No bottle necessary.
We're long-time advocates for wine in keg. I wrote back in 2010 on the blog about how much potential the format had, but how frustrating it was that the industry hadn't settled on a standard for keg size and connection yet. By 2013 things had evolved enough that I could celebrate the launch of a national keg program for our Patelin de Tablas, Patelin de Tablas Blanc, and Patelin de Tablas Rosé. And in 2020 we expanded that with small batches of kegs of some of the wines normally only available in our tasting room. Why we're excited boils down to three main reasons:
- Freshness: The wine that is poured out of a keg is replaced by an inert gas, which means that what remains in the keg isn't exposed to oxygen. A bottle, on the other hand, starts oxidizing as soon as it is opened. Roughly half the glasses of wine I order at restaurants show some signs of oxidation... but not if they're served from keg.
- Less Waste: Restaurants expect to dump out the unused ends of most opened bottles at the end of each night, and the rest of any bottle that's been open multiple days. This adds up; restaurants I've spoken to estimate they may waste 25% or more of their glass pours this way. Keg wines are good down to their last pour.
- Sustainability: The bottles, capsules, corks and labels that help preserve, identify and market a wine between barrel and glass are temporary enclosures, that will be discarded when the bottle is consumed. That's a lot of resources tied up in something whose only purpose is to be used and (hopefully) recycled or (more often) thrown away. Kegs eliminate all this wasted packaging. When they're empty, they get returned to be washed and reused. Free Flow Wines, our partner in our national kegging program, recently shared the results of a study showing that reusable stainless steel kegs offer a 76% savings in carbon footprint vs. packaging the same wine in bottles.
In 2022, our distributors sold roughly 640 of our kegs to restaurants and wine bars around the country. Earlier this week we shared a photo of our new tap handles on social media, and got a lot of excited customer responses and a few inquiries from accounts interested in pouring the wines on tap. Perfect.
If you're a regular reader of the blog, you will know that we've been working to be more selective about our use of glass wine bottles. If not, you might be wondering why we're looking for alternatives, given that it's a package with thousands of years of history, made from a product that should be endlessly recyclable, and still the best vessel for long-term aging. Here's a quick summary. Because glass is energy-intensive to mine and mold -- and heavy and fragile to ship -- it accounts for more than half the carbon footprint of the average California winery. It's also bulky. You can reduce glass's packaging footprint by about 20% by moving to lightweight glass, which we did in 2010, but that's still 350% of the footprint of a lighter-weight package like bag-in-box. We've been experimenting with that, and while I think it's a step in the right direction for some wines, it's still a single-use package, requires the creation of some plastic, and isn't great for storage much longer than six months. The glass bottle would be less problematic if it were recycled reliably (it's not; the glass recycling rate in the United States is a dismal 31%) and could become a preferred solution again if we could figure out some sort of wash-and-reuse system along the lines of what soda producers do in Latin America. There are smart people working on this, but the logistical hurdles are daunting and it still seems a long way off. So while we don't expect to move our ageworthy wines out of glass bottle, we've been looking for ways to help at the margins.
Kegs, filled through our partnership with Free Flow, accounted for 12% of the total volume of wine that we sold wholesale last year, and meant that more than 16,000 wine bottles, capsules, and corks/capsules/screwcaps, plus the cardboard needed for more than 1,300 cases, never needed to be created. That's not negligible. But what about our tasting room? We welcomed more than 28,000 guests for tastings last year, and we sell about the same amount of wine there as we do in wholesale. Those guests got six or seven tastes of wine each. Do the math on that and that's a bottle of wine for every four tasting room guests, or enough wine just for guest samples to fill 7,000 bottles. Add in that we taste each bottle when we open it to make sure it's sound, that we use the same bottles to pour by-the-glass wines in our tasting room, that we often discard the ends of bottles rather than hold them overnight for the next day, and that, to ensure that guests get only fresh wine, rarely-poured wines get sent home with our tasting room team after a few days even if they're mostly full, and you end up with a significantly larger number: the nearly 13,000 bottles that we signed out of inventory as tasting room samples in 2022.
Let that sink in a bit. We used more than 1,000 cases of wine just to pour tasting room samples. Some of those pours were of older wines, where their time in bottle would make a difference in how they showed, but nearly 70% of what we sampled out was used within a year of when it was bottled. That's ~9,000 bottles that were sourced, shipped to us, filled, closed, labeled, opened, poured, and recycled within a year.
So I'm pleased to announce that we've sourced kegs, filling and cleaning machines for the cellar, and a modular dispensing system for the tasting room. At each bottling, we'll be setting aside a portion of each wine, putting it in keg. Last week's batch:
The initial reviews we've been getting from our tasting room guests have been enthusiastic. So, when you next come to taste with us, know that many of the samples we'll share with you will come out of our own kegs. As each keg is emptied, we'll wash and sterilize it, and then reuse it for a future wine. A photo of the setup, in use this morning:
We're not expecting to ever get to 100% wine service from keg in our tasting room, and that's fine. We always want to be able to offer wines with bottle age for tasting and sale, and while kegs are outstanding at preserving wine, after a year or so we would expect that the wine from keg would taste different than the same wine from bottle. We'll be trying some small-scale experiments this year to confirm or modify those assumptions. But if we can shift two-thirds or more of our tasting room sampling and glass pours from glass to reusable keg, that's a win. A win for our guests, who don't have to worry about oxidation in their samples. A win for us, since we're estimating we'll go through something like one-third less wine, and we don't have to worry about those pours coming from corked, oxidized, or otherwise flawed wines. And a win for the planet, as thousands of glass bottles and all the associated packaging no longer have a reason to be created.
After all, if glass is a problematic container for the industry at large (don't just take my word for it; the mainstream press has noticed) it seems downright crazy to use it for such temporary storage.