On a recent trip through the Pacific Northwest, I spent a lot of time drinking wine. Not a huge surprise. After all, the area ranks as one of the nation’s top wine-producing regions. Plus, I’m all about sampling outstanding, regional wines. What intrigued me was how the drink was invariably poured — just like draft beer, the wine came straight from a tap.
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Back in New York, I started noticing uptown restaurants such as Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Harlem and downtown gastropubs such as Spitzer’s Corner featuring tap wines on their menus. Was this a gimmick or the new norm? Just what was the impetus behind wine served from a tap?
The concept, I learned, isn’t new. By the third century, much of Western Europe dispensed its wine from wooden barrels. The Gauls supposedly used casks as early as the first century B.C. These vessels replaced two-handled jars known as amphorae, which the Ancient Greeks had created for storing, transporting and serving wine. Lighter yet sturdier than the Grecian ceramic jugs, a wooden keg could also hold more alcohol than its predecessor.
The evolution to draft wines
Over the centuries, as vintners and consumers developed a taste for aged, bottled wines, kegs became as passé as amphorae. That archaic status changed, in part, in the 1970s, when Australian producers began packaging some of their younger wines in collapsible bags and cardboard boxes.
Because the bag and box minimized the wine’s exposure to oxygen, these cask wines, as they were dubbed, kept longer than bottled. With them people could enjoy a glass of wine over a period of time without concerns about the flavor and quality diminishing within a day.
Cask wines also cost less and held more than bottled. For these reasons and more, I, and other wine fans, see more and more glasses coming not from a bottle but from a tap.
Similar to draft beers, today’s commercial cask wines run off tap systems. Reusable, 5-gallon, stainless-steel kegs known as Cornelius tanks house the beverages at controlled temperatures.
Dispensed through airtight systems using either nitrogen or argon, the alcohol maintains its freshness long after the first pour. In the case of sparkling wines, they also hold onto their bubbles. After being tapped, these wines may keep for up to three months.
At Dive Bar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, owner Lee Seinfeld offers five artisanal, New York wines on tap. “This works much better for me than bottled. What I like is that I have fresh, good-quality wine all the time,” says Seinfeld, who installed his red and white wine taps last July and anticipates adding another line for Prosecco.
Presently, Dive Bar goes through eight kegs, about 40 gallons, of wine each month. That amounts to roughly 200 heavy, glass bottles that don’t need to be transported, stored, opened or recycled.
Kegs also eliminate the need for corks, labels and cardboard shipping containers. Minimal packaging results in less waste, lower fuel costs and a greener, cheaper beverage delivery. In the end, this means savings for both restaurant owners and their customers.
As an environmentally conscious consumer, I appreciate the green aspects of tap wines. I also welcome the lower cost on restaurant wine lists. Likewise, I love that I’m guaranteed a fresh beverage and not the dregs from yesterday’s bottle.
What continues to surprise me, though, is the caliber of local wines cascading from New York taps. Noted wineries such as Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard in the Finger Lakes, Brooklyn’s Red Hook Winery and Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton all offer high-quality wines on tap.
Beyond those that require bottle aging, most wines do nicely in kegs. “In theory they should all perform well. The keg is really just a mini-version of a stainless steel tank,” says James Christopher Tracy, head winemaker and partner at Channing Daughters. “But we tend to put wines that are poured by the glass and go through large volumes so fresh, often unoaked or lightly oaked white, pink and red wines …” Tracy says.
Although tap wines may seem novel or odd to the casual imbiber, their positive attributes should win over the skeptics. Good libations at a lower cost with a reduced environmental impact: What’s not to love about wine on tap?
Top photo: The wine region of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Credit: Kathy Hunt