Breaking Bottles

No one would snub a beer on tap, but oenophiles are turning their noses up at a new trend stirring controversy across the industry: Tap wine. Although many connoisseurs applaud the benefits of the program, plenty still believe a corked bottle is the only way to go. Restaurateurs and bar owners are finding themselves in a quandary: Is wine on tap a better method for managing inventory or should tried and true methods be held fast?

Many Long Island restaurants and vineyards, such as Verace in Islip, Luce & Hawkins in Jamesport and Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue, have adopted the trend and believe tap wine is the way of the future. Bruce Schneider, the winemaker at Onabay Vineyards in Southold, is passionate about producing wine on tap citing that it is more convenient to handle, better for the environment, keeps wine fresher and offers a better value than bottled wine. He is also a draft wine pioneer, co-founding The Gotham Project in 2010, a tap company providing kegs to countless fashionable restaurants across LI and NYC.
Schneider explains, “The first and last glass from a keg will taste the same. If you get wine from a bottle that has been opened, there is air that comes in contact with the wine, robbing it of its freshness. We [also] reuse the kegs, therefore reducing the use of single use packaging such as glass, closures, labels and boxes. With [this], we save money and we pass that savings on to our customers.” There is also a considerable convenience associated with the tap wine program, as kegs take up a lot less space in terms of volume than bottles do. “The kegs we have shipped in our first year alone have prevented more than 50,000 bottles, closures and labels from being created and discarded,” he says.

Bruce Schneider is not alone in his love of tap wine. The casual yet elegant restaurant Squiretown in Hampton Bays is one Long Island venue that currently offers a white and red wine on tap. Owner Charles Bishop believes in the many benefits of adopting the trend, stating, “No bottles to throw out or store, no spoiled wine left open, lower wholesale prices, no storage of multiple cases. I sell carafes of tap wine, too, which is a nice benefit.” Customer reactions are also an advantage to selling the product. As Bishop explains, “Those that are in the know tend to order the tap wines regularly. I enthusiastically mention it to those that aren’t aware and I find they take well to the idea and enjoy its benefits.” And if all else fails, there’s always price—tap wine is typically less expensive than the sister bottled version.

Pundits for tap wine cite customers’ excitement about the product being grown on Long Island by Long Islanders (and also consumed by Long Islanders). The green factor is another plus; reducing the bottle, label and cork from the wine packaging equation can lead to as much as 25% reduction in waste. And, with reusable kegs, the product engages a minimal carbon footprint.

One of the biggest concerns for winemakers at the source is keeping oxygen away from the product, because it spoils the wine. But in a keg, the contents are under gas pressure, which protects the wine like a blanket, preventing spoiling. The procurement of keg wine can also be an enhancement, as winemaker Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue, a winery that produces and distributes the product, explains. According to Massoud, the storage procedures for tap wine actually allow the wine to be ready to drink sooner than most bottled wines. “The amount of sulfites added to a wine can be reduced. Sulfites act as a preservative in wine as they protect the wine from oxidation. With regard to wine quality, a reduced level of sulfites can make a wine more approachable, [meaning] it’s ready to drink sooner.”

According to Massoud, historically it’s been believed the cork allows for the “correct” amount of oxygen to properly develop a wine. However, until recently, there weren’t any other options to challenge the theory (or the romanticism of the cork). When a bottle of wine is produced winemakers don’t actually know when and where it will be consumed and therefore can’t really gauge the “correct” oxygen. Maybe the bottle will be opened this week at the restaurant down the road, or perhaps it will be sold in an Australian supermarket and opened years down the line. Winemakers can estimate when the keg wine will be consumed and thus whether or not they should add less sulfites.

Despite many wineries and restaurants jumping on board with the tap wine trend however, there are still others who do not see the benefits. Marco Borghese of Castello di Borghese Winery in Cutchogue has not yet adopted the practice. Although he is thinking about beginning to manufacture the product, he believes wine from a corked bottle is the better option. “I think the advantages [of tap wine] are from a retail standpoint. You can serve a glass of wine relatively label free. It is a matter of convenience for retailers more than a way to enhance the wine. It doesn’t age properly in a keg. Wine in a bottle keeps aging.”
Although Borghese states he would never put his best wines on tap, he feels pressure to jump on the trend due to customer demand for the product. “It gives some retailers and stores who do tastings a convenient way of handling the tastings. Restaurants that serve a lot of wine by the glass, instead of having to pour from a bottle, can hold a glass under a spigot.” For the consumer, this means wines will be more accessible at tastings in particular because stores and restaurants will be more willing to share a wine if there is less risk of leftovers being wasted.

Overall, most of the cons seem to be related to marketing, due to the elimination of packaging. The packaging is part of the overall brand creation for the product, which helps send strategic and informative cues to wine drinkers. Massoud concedes, “From a marketing standpoint, there are certain consumers who are traditionalists who will always view anything other than a cork finished bottle of wine as sub par. Of course, wine on tap will be a tough sell to this crowd.”

While this may make investing in tap wine a risky business endeavor, it seems for now, some winemakers won’t mind gambling if they can sell a higher volume of wine through the tap program and introduce the product in a broader sense. Consumers who have jumped on board the green movement are likely to find this concept sustainable and environmentally friendly. Altogether, tap wine might prove to be a quality, convenient and economically savvy choice wine snobs can nose into. But as is the case with most wine, only time will tell.