The answer: GOOD! (Although will likely be better in the future… pros and cons below)
Recently I was invited by a bar owner to taste wines from a wine tap system she recently installed as she was rehabbing her bar/restaurant. She explained that the tap system was ideal for her because her business inhabits an older building with limited bar space, so fewer bottles cluttering the bar space (and fewer empties rattle around before disposal) seemed a great idea. Of course there is also the best possible reason: profits. Although prices vary, the wine kegs she buys (which contain approximately 27 standard bottles of wine), provide significant savings compared to purchasing single bottles, or even cases of wine in standard glass bottles. Finally, there is the green argument slowly making its way through the wine industry. Understandably, the added heft and packaging costs of several cases of wine causes the packaging and shipment portion of total cost to be much higher, while the lighter, metal keg with handles holding 27 bottles of wine is easier to move, less expensive to ship, and clearly less environmentally impactful. Even if a customer doesn’t typically consider all those points, most any consumer will appreciate lower prices, and the bar owner will enjoy increased margins! So what’s not to like? Well, I was skeptical about the quality of the wine, even though the logical side of my brain knew that a sealed keg was likely a MORE stable way to transport wine than a bottle enclosed with a cork (even in modern times we expect roughly 5% of bottles to be tainted in some way, often by the cork), but the romantic and emotional side of my brain loves the “pop and circumstance” of opening and handling a bottle. To be fair, a typical bar likely has very few people who would actually like to see the bottle from which their wine came, so the bottle idea is a non-issue. Even so, what about quality?
In an effort to get to the bottom of this, a tasting was planned. My idea was to locate same year and vintage wines in bottle, bring them to the bar and try them side by side with the tap wines. So that my opinions weren’t the only ones in the room, I invited a good friend and fellow wine lover and author of the highly useful wine newsletter “an eye for wine” www.aneyeforwine.com
I located wines in bottle from same maker and same vintage as several of the bar’s keg wines. We filled our table with glasses of bottle and tap wines to determineif we could discern one from another – and we could – slightly – but only initially… The only difference between bottle and tap wines that we could discern was that the bottle wines seemed to open up much faster. The nose was especially more open on the bottle wines and that may have enhanced the flavors on the initial sips. However this was not a clear victory for the bottles, because after a few minutes of breathing in the glass, the tap wines opened and became (to my palate at least) completely identical! Why this happens could have to do with the absolute lack of air in the keg arrangement or possibly the amount of wine to surface area etc. – there is no way for us to know… but we found this ‘closed’ aspect on the tap wines to be present in each of the wines we compared. Given this, we concluded (somewhat surprisingly) that while we recommend significant swirling, there is no reason to avoid a wine that was transported in a keg and served from a tap!
Here are some pros and cons from my perspective:
- Less spoilage
- Fewer bottles to store and dispose
- Higher margins for operator – and potentially lower retail prices for consumer
- 27 bottles each keg means lots of servings before having to change out
- More selection coming in the future
- 27 bottles each keg means lots of servings before having to change out – so a slow seller will take a long time to get out of the system
- Snob factor – some people feel better about a bottle and a cork etc
- Equipment investment – bar owner has to commit capital up front and embrace the wine on tap concept
- Limited selection currently – the bar owner said only about 50 different wines available – so it might not work for every restaurant