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Wine on Tap, Substance or Style?

Consumers beware of clever packaging. It's the quality of the wine that should be more important than the presentation.

I hate gimmicks more than getting up early in the morning in the middle of vacation to do taxes. I hate gimmicks as much as I like the friendly competition at Iron Vintners, the annual Iron Chef-style cooking competition pitting local winemakers at .

On that note, congratulations to Morgan Lee of and Two Vintners Winery on winning this year’s competition. Congratulations also go to , the Woodinville-based therapeutic horse riding non-profit for children and adults, the beneficiaries of the three-week cooking tournament.

Back to gimmicks. A popular gimmick in wine today is wine on tap.

I haven’t seen any results that show that serving wine on tap improves the quality of the fermented grape juice. In fact, in many cases, much of the wine that is sold in kegs is juice left over that was not deemed suitable to bottle and seal under cork or another closure.

Wine taps can be convenient to bars and restaurants serving wines out of the vessel made popular by beer. There’s no inherent benefit to the consumer, unless bars and restaurants pass the savings on to their guests. I have yet to see evidence of that as well.

Take Charles & Charles Red Wine, a wine made in collaboration between Charles Smith and Charles Bieler. The wine is a simple, fruit-forward, straightforward and easy drinking sipper ideal for a happy hour menu. Sold by the glass bottle, it retails for around $10. Served on tap at Seatown, Tom Douglas’ casual restaurant by the Pike Place Market, it sells for $10 for a quarter liter and $20 for half a littler. That amounts to $30 for three quarters of a liter, the equivalent of a regular bottle.

At best, that would be about the same mark-up if it were sold by the bottle at the restaurant. Considering the presumed cost saving for convenience to the restaurant, the margins are slightly larger for the business, meaning the consumer is screwed.

Small Lot Co-Op, founded in Woodinville and now based in Shoreline, hawks wines on tap by Walla Walla-based Proletariat Wine Company. in Woodinville sells wine in tote bags and kegs. Ron Bunnell, , also sells wine by the keg.

Proletariat wines are served at , , and in Bellevue, in Redmond, Sparta’s in Bothell, , , the and the in Kirkland, Bennett’s on Mercer Island, and WildFin American Grill and Pogacha in Issaquah. Black Bottle Postern, WildFin and Le Grand Bistro Americain also sell Piccolo wines. They are also available at and in Redmond.  

Proletariat claims on its website that, “Basically, we're passing on the cost savings gained by providing larger quantities and by not having to bottle, store, package or promote our wines.” I’ll take them at their word. Like Charles & Charles, Proletariat wines are generally one dimensional, bascially fruit-forward.

Proletariat Wine Co. is on a local tour of restaurants, dubbed “Kill the Keg,” promoting their wines. Glass pours are sold for $3 to $5 at featured restaurants. Those prices are only for a single day at a single restaurant at a time. For updates and upcoming stops on their tour check Proletariat's Facebook page

At Bennett’s on Mercer Island, Proletariat Viognier-Roussane sells for $12 a glass. The Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $14 a glass. Both wines are within a reasonable price range relative to quality, but I hardly consider it a bargain. If you order a restaurant's wines, look past the novelty of wine on tap and evaluate it on its merits.

The wine could be stored in the University of Washington’s 1991 football national championship crystal trophy and poured by Brigitte Bardot for all I care. And do I love UW football and Bardot. In the end, it’s the quality of the wine that matters.

Jarrod Boyle June 25, 2012 at 10:53 PM
I’m with you when it comes to gimmicks, and agree that the quality of the wine is the important thing. I think there is a mixture of motivating factors among wineries & restaurants. Alexandria Nicole Cellars has gotten involved in producing wine in kegs because we believe this is a movement that will have legs, and that offers real benefits to all. Although some keg wines are high production wines, there are a number of producers, ANC included, who are using kegs for the exact same wines that would normally go into bottles. As the keg wine market continues to develop, I think you will see a healthy mixture of wine styles & quality. To your point regarding price benefit to the consumer, this is certainly an area where wineries have limited control. For us, there isn’t really a short-term cost savings, as there is a large capital investment involved in the purchase of kegging & sanitation equipment. I can say that kegs offer potential for savings to the consumer, as restaurants don’t have to make up the price of an entire bottle on a glass pour, since they don’t have the worry of spoilage. Then there's the ecological benefit from diminished packaging waste and the lower carbon footprint that accompanies lower packaging weights. I think that the points that you bring up are definitely things that need to be monitored and addressed as this new market continues to grow. Ultimately keg wines will only evolve from just being a fad if everyone benefits. Jarrod Boyle
Caitlin Moran June 26, 2012 at 04:18 PM
Thanks for your insightful comments, Jarrod! Seems to me the environmental benefits are definitely a big benefit of wine on tap.

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