Wine on Tap

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Chris Pastena drawing a glass at Chop Bar
Chris Pastena drawing a glass at Chop Bar

Americans are so darn rigid about wine. For instance, we used to know that good wine was French or Italian, but California made nothing but schlock.

Then we warmed to California wine, but knew that wine poured out of a tap at a bar was nothing but schlock. (Anheuser Busch used to sell wine on tap in the 1970s, and it wasn't very good.)

Think again.

Wine on tap is sweeping into restaurants and bars around the Bay Area because... well, let Gus Vahlkamp explain it. He's the wine director for Out the Door in San Francisco (Charles Phan's new mini-chain).

"There are really three reasons. It's better to reuse than recycle, our recycling has been reduced by at least half. Also it's cost effective, because the producers aren't adding on the cost of the bottle, the cork, the carton and the transportation it comes in. I'm able to buy these wines at 25 percent off the wholesale bottle cost. And third, because these wines have not been bottled, I can go to the winery, create my own custom blend, and pour a wine that no one else in the country is going to have."

So it's greener than bottles, and cheaper. And Vahlkamp and other restaurateurs are passing the savings on to customers. Out The Door sells a crisp, fresh 2009 Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc for $4.50 a glass. At Chop Bar in Oakland near Jack London Square, co-owner Chris Pastena (formerly of Coda) sells a Frogs Leap 2008 Zinfandel on tap for $12 a glass, when it might go for $16 or $18 out of a bottle.


The tap setup at Chop Bar
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
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 Ouellettes Vintap samples
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.

A few more Bay Area restaurants serving wine on tap:
Salt House
Annabelle's Bar & Bistro
Tavern at Lark Creek
Residual Sugar Wine Bar

Cy Musiker will be discussing "green" trends in wine on Food & Wine This Week with Leslie Sbrocco, wine expert and host of Check, Please! Bay Area and Jean-Charles Boisset, wine innovator and President of Boisset Family Estates.
Watch Friday 6/25 at 8pm on KQED 9HD.