Some winebars bistros and restaurants, locally, in the city and out east are offering wines "on tap" served from "eco-kegs."
They are good quality wines at good prices by the glass or carafe served from good old fashioned barrels, skipping the whole cork and bottle routine. Well not exactly old fashioned, I'm talking about small (20 liter) stainless steel barrels that hold a little over 2 cases worth of wine and are served through a modern tap system (similar to draft beer) that keeps the wine fresh and good to the last drop. The empty keg is sent back and refilled at the winery.
This is an old concept, updated to better meet consumers needs. There is little question that the modern version of the traditional wine barrel beats wines in bottles as a cost effective means to consistently deliver a fresh glass of wine at the bar. But people associate barrels with the large oak casks used for fermenting and aging and even transporting wines that date back to the palm-wood wine casks Herodotus wrote of. Or they remember the cheap 5 liter bag-in-a-box wine.
Traditions hold fast in the wine world and tradtionally "good" wine comes in bottles with corks. "cheap plonk" comes in bottles with screw tops or worse in a 5 liter box with a little spigot. Screw tops are slowly overcoming the "cheap wine" image but it's taken years for them to be accepted despite the fact that they are the answer to bad corks. Will wine from modern kegs be accepted?
Here are a couple of local restaurants with wine on tap: Verace in Islip lists six wines from "eco-kegs," Raphael Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot from Long Island, Riesling from the Finger Lakes and Italian selections. H2O in Smithtown offers a similar mix of local and Italian wines.
Here are a couple the of many city restaurants with wine on tap: Artisanal fromagerie, bistro and wine bar on Park near 32nd lists a nice California Pinot Noir, German Riesling and Finger Lakes Chardonnay and the John Dory Oyster Bar at the Ace Hotel, 29th and Broadway features Channing Daughters from Long Island as well as French, Italian and Chilean offerings. There are many more places in the city as well as on the east end serving keg wine.
So what are the big advantages of keg wine? The keg is suited to the quotidian pour. Good, everyday wines will show their best served from such a system because the wine is "farm fresh" if you will. You won't find (nor should you) Grand cru Burgs or 1st growth Bordeaux but rather good American varietals and a selection of imports that sell for $8-$13 a glass. Neither the top nor the bottom of the wine hierarchy. For consumers the great benefit is a consistently fresh glass of wine in pristine condition, you never get the last tired pour from the bottom of the bottle. For the bar or restaurant, the kegs are green in that it's easier to refill a keg than to recycle the equivalent number of bottles, it also occupies less space and is lighter than the equivalent amount of bottled wine. There is also very little waste and no spoilage. From management's point of view, once the system is set up it is easy, no bottles to stock, open or discard, just pull the tap and pour.
Who provides this service? Some local wineries do their own kegging, this is a great way for our east end vintners to connect with consumers and that's why we see some wines from Long Island and the Finger Lakes in kegs. Locally, Paumanok, Channing Daughters, Raphael and Jamesport are a few of the wineries that have a keg exchange program with some restaurants and bars. There are also third party keg purveyors. Gotham Project based in New York and N2 (the chemical symbol for diatomic nitrogen) in California are two outfits that provide bars and restaurants with a wide selection of keg wines as well as service for the tap systems. Gotham Project lists 36 different wines from all over the world availble on tap!
What's the reaction? As I said traditions die hard but as long as consumers buy, restaurants will sell. Hopefully the benefits will become apparent and the trend will spread. The top wines or wines that need cellaring to mature will not be put in kegs just as you won't ever see a bottle of Dom Perignon sealed with a bottle cap. That leaves the vast majority of the world's wine which is best served as fresh as possible and exposed to as little oxygen as possible. I would love to see the 2012 Beaujolais Nouveau in a keg this year, it is made for kegging. I'll keep you posted.