Beyond the bottle: California establishments tap into a hot new wine trendSAN JOSE, Calif. – Ten years ago, while restaurateur Mike Sabina and winemaker Dane Stark were working the Livermore Valley, Cailf., harvest, the men had an oenophilic epiphany.
By: Jessica Yadegaran, San Jose Mercury News, INFORUM
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Ten years ago, while restaurateur Mike Sabina and winemaker Dane Stark were working the Livermore Valley, Cailf., harvest, the men had an oenophilic epiphany.
Stark, of Page Mill Winery, was lamenting the high cost of bottling. If only wine, like beer, could live in a keg, he said. Restaurants could serve wines by the glass without having to chuck half-full bottles, and the industry could lower its carbon footprint.
“It can,” Sabina said. “You use wine that’s stored in a keg when you top off your barrels during the aging process.” Duh.
When it came time to build the bar in his Palo Alto, Calif., restaurant, St. Michael’s Alley, Sabina bought a draft beer tap system and converted it for wine. He replaced the galvanized steel lines with wine-friendly stainless steel and used nitrogen, an inert gas, to push the wine from keg to tap.
By the end, Sabina had drilled through 29 inches of concrete to create a 95-foot run from the spouts at bar level to the refrigerated kegs stored underground. And he says it was worth every bead of sweat.
“My only regret is that I only put in four lines,” he says. “This is simply the best way to serve wine.”
When Sabina started his project, no one had heard of wines on tap. Now, ready-made systems can be spotted all over California, from Handles Gastropub in Pleasanton and Chop Bar in Berkeley, to Vino Vino in San Jose. Experts say it is a cheaper, fresher and greener way to serve wines by the glass.
Consider this: When you order a glass of wine on a Saturday night, there’s a good chance it was poured from a bottle that was opened three days earlier. Even a newbie would notice the notes of vinegar.
“It’s just not the same,” says Sabina, who pours Thomas Fogarty Santa Cruz Mountains Merlot from the tap for $8 a glass. “And most customers can tell.”
Because wines served from kegs are never exposed to oxygen, they remain fresh for months. Trash bins remain free of corks, glass and cardboard cases. And customers are more likely to buy wine when they can have a quick, tiny sample that is often free.
Experts estimate that all of this efficiency – no frazzled bartender pulling corks and spilling wine, no busboy making recycling runs – cuts costs by up to 20 percent. It’s a savings Chris Hampton, wine director of Pleasanton’s Handles Gastropub, happily passes on to his customers.
Hampton built eight wine taps on both sides of Handles’ beer system. The glistening stainless steel takes up nearly an entire wall of the gastro pub’s bar. The kegs, which each hold 5.15 gallons, or about 26 bottles of wine, are housed just behind it.
“It’s a win-win-win,” Hampton says. “The wineries eliminate bottling costs, we benefit from the efficiency, and customers are guaranteed a fresh glass of wine every time.”
Kegging also offered Hampton a chance to work with Vintap North America, a company that brokers and distributes stainless steel kegs, to create an exclusive Handles Gastropub wine to complement the joint’s burger fare. The result, the HOM (Handles on Main) Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, fetches $8.50 a glass.
“It was great fun and produced a wine that far surpassed our expectations,” Hampton says. “We’ve blown through an eight-month supply in four months.”
Wine conglomerates such as Diageo and Southern Wine & Spirits have begun tapping into kegs for their brands as well. But many restaurants are giving local, artisan winemakers a shot at the spigot.
Collin Cranor of Livermore’s Nottingham Cellars started kegging last summer and loves it because he has the freedom to experiment with off-the-wall blends and tiny batches of rare wine.
Recently, he worked with Victor Klee of Vino Vino in San Jose to create a blend of syrah, petit sirah and cabernet sauvignon to serve among the wine bar’s 13 wines on tap.
“The wine ended up tasting awesome,” says Cranor, who works in 120-gallon – roughly two barrels – increments. He fills and delivers the kegs personally. “The benefit for me is creating these blends that I wouldn’t necessarily bottle. It’s sort of like a microbrewery.”
Unlike beer, however, not all wines were meant to see the inside of a keg. A small percentage of wines are age-worthy and thus benefit from the slow oxidation that occurs when they are laid down for years, explains Jim Telford, sommelier and owner of Residual Sugar in Walnut Creek, Calif. Keg wines are meant to be consumed right away.
“Will we see 1855 classifications in a keg? I don’t know,” says Telford, referring to the system that classifies France’s best Bordeaux wines. “Those wines are so tight (in character) that if you never allowed them the time to mellow, it would be a big problem.”
Still, kegs are the future. Telford estimates that within 10 years the majority of wines-by-the-glass will be served via keg – giving new meaning to the term, keg party.