The tap setup at Chop Bar
And the wine always tastes fresh. Most restaurants pour their wine-by-the-glass selections out of bottles that sit for days, often long after the contents inside have staled. But restaurants with tap systems use an inert gas like argon or nitrogen to push the wine through the lines. That gas also protects the wine for weeks against oxidation. (Wineries blanket their wines with the same gases for the same reason when they store their wines in tanks.)
"What's funny about keg wine is it's an old idea made new again," says Matt Licklider, co-owner of Lioco Wine in Santa Rosa, one of Out The Door's chief suppliers.
"My partners and I were inspired in creating our wine by our experience in Europe," Licklider says. "We loved this idea that there was no ceremony about wine in Europe. You can take an empty jug to lots of regional coops in France and fill it up for pennies an ounce. So even when we wrote the business plan, we had always talked about alternative packaging."
There's also a big locavore angle to this tap wine boom. Vahlkamp picks his wine up in a van every few weeks from wineries in Carneros and Sonoma. At Chop Bar, Pastena buys a few kegs of wine, once a month, from JC Cellars, a winery just down the block really, from the restaurant. "I can promise you, Pastena says, "there's no carbon emissions when we truck those kegs over here on a hand cart." The wine in those kegs is JC Cellars Daily Ration, a rich California red blend for just $6 a glass that goes well with The Chop Bar's Niman Ranch Burger.
Michael Ouellette with a sample
There are a few big technical questions left to resolve before this boom in tap wine goes global. Different restaurants and different wineries use different keg systems, and often have their kegs custom built, and only a few wineries own equipment to efficiently fill the kegs. Michael Ouellette of Vintap, the former wine director for Mustards in St. Helena, now drives all over the North Coast, basically hand bottling kegs at choice wineries like Steltzner in Stags Leap and Oakville Ranch Vineyards. Ouellette says he's designing a bottling truck to automate the process. Rudy Von Strasser at Von Strasser Winery sells Ouellette a dynamite Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon for sale on tap, but he says he hates the hassle factor. And when I talked to Vahlkamp at the Out The Door on Bush Street, he was exhausted and grubby from his keg road trip. He washes the kegs himself by hand. And you thought being a sommelier was a glamour job.
"That's one of the challenges we're facing," says Licklider. We need a keg wine summit, to work out all the complexities in it."
Michael Ouellette's Vintap samples
Still one of the first and most successful restaurants to serve wine on tap, Two Urban Licks, makes it work all way across the country in Atlanta, with 42 wines, half white, half red.
And imagine a day when it's as easy to get a great local wine on tap for cheap, as it is to get a great local beer. Who says the future's not all it's cracked up to be.