|Wine on Tap|
|Other Features - Cover Stories|
Wine on Tap
By Jessica Bell ● Photos by Nellie Vance
Isn’t everything better “on tap”? It would seem Milwaukeeans need little convincing of this. Local wine bars and restaurants report that consumers are receiving wine on tap with open mouths. Wines are dispensed using standard draught systems outfitted with higher-grade fittings than those used for beer. This novel application enhances a restaurant’s wine by the glass program and benefits everyone, from the avid wine drinker to the restaurant owner to those who don’t even drink wine.
Ordering wine by the glass (from a bottle) has its perks and imperfections. On one hand, consumers appreciate not having to commit to the size or price of an entire bottle. On the other hand, many consumers unknowingly pay full price for oxidized wines, void of flavor, opened for the previous customer, sometimes days prior. As the market flourishes with high-quality, value-driven wine on tap, consumers no longer have to sacrifice quality, accessibility or value for freshness. Brooke Boomer, owner of The Ruby Tap wine bar in Wauwatosa, has done side-by-side comparisons of the same wine—both from keg and from bottle—and opines tap is better. “They always seem a little bolder, with a fresher taste.”
Across the bar, bartenders and management welcome tap wine’s resulting reduction in waste and labor and its higher potential margins. Accustomed to sending half-full bottles of oxidized wine back to the kitchen or lugging bulky cardboard boxes and glass bottles to the dumpster, bar managers value the efficiencies of wine on tap. Once tapped, the wine stays fresh for about six months and the kegs are reusable. With a capacity of about 26 bottles, kegs are often priced at the equivalent of two cases (24 bottles). With less wasted wine and a “bonus” two free bottles with each keg, this innovative alternative can improve profitability.
At the table, servers also approve of the changes. Especially during peak times, corking a bottle or bringing a “taste” of a wine to a table can gobble up valuable minutes. With wine on tap, servers feel more inclined to offer customers samples, fostering good rapport between wait staff and guests. Bradley Wooten, Wine Director at Balzac Wine Bar, believes offering a taste to consumers makes their choices feel “less risky.” Sarah Baker, General Manager of Pizza Man Restaurant, likes the accessibility of wines on tap; guests can sample the wine, order a glass, a half carafe or a full one-liter carafe. For Sarah, this type of service feels a lot more approachable—even European, she says—where there is often a “house wine” which diners can consume in whatever size they’re comfortable with.
Even teetotalers should dig this ecologically sound business decision. In addition to the dramatic reduction in waste due to eliminating the equivalent of over two cases worth of cardboard and glass, kegs require less energy to ship and are reusable for at least 20 years. According to The Gotham Project, a distributor of stainless steel kegs, one keg will eliminate the use of 3,000 bottles, closures/foils and labels throughout its lifetime use.
So with all of this to love, why don’t more Milwaukee establishments offer wines on tap? It seems its sluggish adoption has little to do with customer resistance, inferior quality or lack of efficiencies and more to do with misconceptions. First, some businesses fear their customers will disapprove. On the contrary, Boomer from Ruby Tap says not only is there little to no resistance, but that some of her customers will only order what’s on tap. Second, some cringe at the upfront investment, but by most restaurants’ standards, it is a small one at $500-800 per line, which often pays for itself within the first year. Some wholesalers are even willing to mitigate the upfront cost by offering the first keg free of charge.
Other restaurants complain of space constraints, but self-contained wine tap systems fit under the bar and take up approximately the same space as a large garbage can. Karen Bell, owner of Bavette restaurant and wine bar, did not plan for wines on tap in the build out of her Third Ward space, but has recently made room to install four lines in the coming months with little disruption to her current setup.
The only other obstacle to widespread implementation is that, ironically, it isn’t widely available. The wholesalers bring in small quantities with relatively limited offerings. Wholesalers and restaurants alike are trying to figure out the optimal pricing structure for this new system that manages kegs instead of bottles. With increased turnover and more experience, however, these rookie kinks will likely be ironed out before too long.
So, what does the future hold for wine on tap? Those familiar but not on board with the new system refute that this is just a trend. Wines on tap will fundamentally change the way restaurants manage their wine by the glass options, which can be the most popular and profitable aspect of a beverage program. Richard Serrano, Director of Domestic Wines at L’eft Bank Wine Company, even ventures to predict that “[once] the infrastructure is in place, it wouldn't surprise [him] if most restaurants had ten wines on tap ranging from $5-$20+ per glass." At that rate, Brew City may soon find its bars “all tapped out,” awash in beer and wine.
Below is a list of the city’s leaders in wine on tap.
1716 N Arlington Pl
4 taps, $8 per glass
330 E Menomonee St
2 taps, Average $7.50 per glass
1101 S 2nd St
4 taps, Average $8 per glass
4044 N Oakland Ave
8 taps, $7.50 per glass
21445 W Gumina Rd, Pewaukee
4 taps, Average $8.50 per glass
2597 N Downer Ave
8 taps, $7 per glass
1341 Wauwatosa Ave
6 taps, Average $7.50 per glass
1030 N Water St
2 taps, Average $7.50 per glass
Here is a full PDF of this article as it appeared in print.