Don’t sneer. Don’t condescend. Just belly up to the bar for a cold one drawn straight from the tap. Proponents of the draft wine trend swear that tasting is believing.
Kegged wine is nothing new.
It’s been common in Europe for centuries, and has been floating around California’s wine-growing regions for a few decades. Now you’ll find it from coast to coast in thousands of restaurants, wine bars, and neighborhood pubs. It has advantages that are economic, environmental, and even quality-related that recommend it to both the high and low ends of the food and beverage industry.
Kegged wine starts out like any wine.
But at the end of the barreling stage, instead of heading to a bottle, it’s transferred directly into stainless steel kegs, usually holding the equivalent of about 26 bottles of wine each. Once tapped, it works like a beer keg minus the pressure required for carbonation; a flavorless gas pushes the wine from keg to tap and occupies the empty space in the keg to prevent oxidation. Once the kegs are empty, they’re returned to their respective wineries to be cleaned and re-used.
The economics of kegged wine are clear.
Skipping the bottling process allows the wineries to save nearly a third of their costs in both labor and materials, and reduces shipping costs. The lower costs are passed to the restaurants that see further savings from easier storage, less breakage, waste, and spoilage, and ease of serving.
The environmental benefits are numerous.
The transported weight of kegs is a fraction of bottle weight, saving fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions. Corks, foils, labels, and case packaging is eliminated, so there is less manufacturing and printing, and a lot less cardboard to recycle.
And then there’s the bottles.
80% of all restaurant wine is sold by the glass generating 600 million empty bottles per year, and less than a third are recovered for recycling. If even a small fraction of that was served from kegs, it would keep tens of millions of bottles out of landfills every year.
Of course it all comes down to taste.
Wines that benefit from bottle aging aren’t candidates for kegging, but the vast majority of wines are ready to drink at the point of bottling. Some wines even benefit from the large format of kegging in the same way that subtle tasting nuances can appear when wine is bottled as a magnum or jeroboam rather than a standard bottle. And there are no quality issues related to storage, corking, or oxidation; the taste is consistent from the keg’s start to finish.
Also, the wine industry has been careful not to keg just any old vinous liquid. In fact the wines available on tap are often an improvement over the typical by-the-glass offerings because the lower wholesale cost and higher profit margin for kegged wines has allowed restaurants to actually upgrade their selection without raising prices.
The only real barrier is consumer resistance.
Remember that a just few years ago wine drinkers were raising a stink over screw caps replacing cork bottle closures. Now the caps are found on the precious bottles of California’s top-tier producers and have even made inroads in tradition-bound France. You’re not sure about wine on tap? You’ll get over it.