By Thomas Riley
When it comes to wine, America has been playing catch-up to Europe for quite some time. But progress on that front has been accelerating rapidly in recent years. The latest manifestation of these gains can be seen in the growing number of East Bay restaurants now featuring wines on tap. What seemed like a fad just a few short years ago has now become a fixture of the local dining landscape.
One of the first local restaurants to explore the notion of kegged wine was Oakland’s Chop Bar. According to owner Chris Pastena, who also owns and operates popular spots Tribune Tavern and Lungomare, the early days were very much hit-and-miss, and those interested in this new format had to be prepared to make things up as they went along.
“We started doing it when we opened in September of 2009,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of information about wine-on-tap at the time. Also, there weren’t a lot of kegs being manufactured and there weren’t many systems available, so we ended up creating our own hodge-podge operation ourselves.”
While developing the correct infrastructure was a challenge, the next obstacle was a bit more daunting: where to get the wine?
“The second thing we had to figure out was how to get wine,” Pastena said. “You couldn’t just go up to one of your distributors or producers and say ‘hey, I want you to make us some great Cabernet. It just wasn’t available.”
Zut!: Environmental benefits of wine-on-tap hard to ignore
If putting together a wine-by-the-glass program based at least partly on keg wine was such a challenge, what motivated Pastena and others to pursue it? According to Michael Petrilli, general manager of Zut! in Berkeley, the environmental benefits of wine-on-tap were too big to ignore.
“For us, a major motivation really was the environmental factor,” Petrilli said. “The sustainability of it all is significant. When I was doing the initial research I found that waste could be reduced by up to 90%.” Petrilli went on to explain that the green element of kegged wine could be found at every step of the process from the winery to the restaurant.
“Not only did we want our customers to get high quality wine,” Pastena agreed, “but we also looked at how we could do new things in order to be greener. And the beauty of this is that there is no bottle waste and we reuse packaging. We use less space because we don’t have to store bottles in cases. And then we don’t have to have as many deliveries. So the entire process is really very environmentally friendly and is at the core of why we decided to do this.”
Another strong incentive to be greener comes covered in dollar signs. When bottles opened for wine-by-the-glass sales are not consumed within a day or two, the leftovers are often simply dumped down the drain. It might look like wine, but for restaurant owners and managers it’s actually dollars sliding into the sink. With keg wine, freshness, and thus loss, is never an issue.
Pastena admits he has no idea how long wine in kegs can last. “I’ve not had a keg go bad on me yet, so I really don’t know.”
Andrew Hoffman, general manager at Comal in Berkeley, concurs, admitting that he and his staff have yet to find out what the shelf life of wine-on-tap might be. “I know it’s weeks, as opposed to days like with bottled wine. We’re fortunate to sell enough, to go through it quickly, so we don’t really have to worry about it. With wine from a keg, it’s all about keeping wine better longer.”
Another attraction for restaurants is the ability to expose diners to boutique wineries and other smaller producers, many of them local.
Local 123: showcasing selection of limited local wines
“Wine on tap makes so much sense, especially in the Bay Area with so many talented winemakers and willing distributors, who are working to make the industry more sustainable in a pragmatic way,” said Frieda Hoffman, owner of Berkeley’s Local 123 (no relation to Andrew), which is dedicated to an operation that is as local and sustainable as possible. As Hoffman notes on her restaurant’s website, wine-on-tap allows her to showcase a rotating selection of limited wines from Napa, Sonoma, and “even Oakland rock star producers.”
When Comal opened last year they were thinking along very same lines, said Andrew Hoffman.
“We have a couple of business partners whose friends are winemakers, one of whom, Pax Mahle at Wind Gap Wines, was already doing a significant keg program,” he explained. “We wanted, of course, to feature his wines. We had two taps and had one pegged for him. The other tap we used for wines from a friend, Duncan Arnot from Arnot-Roberts in Sonoma. Those are the two wines we started with. The possibility of being able to serve such high quality wine by the glass was a great motivator.”
The reason behind customers’ ability to explore and discover new wine territory is not a function of owners’ generosity, but rather a function of producers and sellers being able to pass along to customers the savings that come from reduced costs.
“Our wines on tap are $8 a glass,” Comal’s Hoffman added, “and it’s a generous pour. We offer beautiful wines, wines I’m not sure we’d be able to showcase in this way if we were pouring from the bottle.”
Zut’s Petrilli echoes the fact, noting that he is able to pass along his savings to the customers. “We get more value, and we are able to serve wonderful wines that otherwise would be much more expensive.”
While wine-on-tap is here to stay, the system is still far from perfect. Restaurant owners and managers still face impediments, from daily challenges like keeping lines from plugging with sediment, to finding enough producers willing to become a part of the world of keg wine. One challenge they no longer face, they all agree, is the need to persuade customers of the value of wine-on-tap.
“I don’t think it’s a shock to anyone anymore,” Petrilli stated. “Initially, I did have people say how can you do that, how can you sell this? Wine has to come in a bottle, it has to have a cork. Those reactions are a thing of the past.” The fact is, Chop’s Pastena adds, “customers don’t think twice about it anymore. They’re just looking at it as wine by the glass.”
Comal’s Hoffman agrees, noting that people are more interested in particular wines than in the fact that it happens to come in a keg.
“People often ask about them because they are special wines, not simply because they are on tap,” he said. “That being said, however, I certainly hear people ask for a white on tap. I spend a lot of time at the bar and outside on the weekends and it’s not an infrequent call. It’s great. That’s what will drive the whole effort, if the customers are into it.”
More and more, it appears, East Bay diners are certainly into it.
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Top pick: 6 stand-out East Bay restaurant wine lists (07.09.13)