David Stansfield is one happy man. He’s the sommelier and wine buyer at bustling Tap & Barrel, in the heart of Vancouver’s newest neighbourhood that’s sprouted in the former Olympic Village.
The restaurant (which opened in summer 2012) is well named: The capacious, two-tier, modern space with sweeping views of False Creek and downtown pours just about every drop of wine or beer it sells not by the bottle but by the glass, right out of the tap.
In fact, Tap & Barrel, along with Vancouver Urban Winery, the company that facilitates the process — is transforming wine service at casual dining establishments across the city and elsewhere.
The consumer reaction has been nothing short of amazing, says Stansfield, who explains that even he was completely unprepared for such a positive response.
“I bought the entire run of Laughing Stock Sauvignon Blanc for the year, 400 litres. I thought ‘I’m gonna get fired for this — we’ll probably still be serving it next year!’ But we sold out in five weeks and that was an $11 glass of wine from a premium producer,” he chuckles.
Equally surprising, says the sommelier, has been the relative drought in bottle sales. “Our list has a full range of well-chosen wines, including some very good values. But as it represents only four per cent of our wine sales, I’m scaling it back.”
Only a year ago, wine on tap was barely a blip on the horizon but signs are that the trend, which arrived south of the border a couple of years ago, is now knocking firmly on Canada’s door.
This summer will see the arrival of another Tap & Barrel, in Coal Harbour, within a bottle toss of the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre. Plans call for 20 wines (six more than at Olympic Village) and 24 beers on tap, all from Okanagan small to mid-sized wineries and craft breweries.
Wine on tap’s West Coast debut may have been somewhat serendipitous, as it coincided with tougher drinking and driving laws that had already begun to have an impact on whole bottle sales. That, combined with Vancouver’s long-established love affair with wines by the glass, certainly didn’t hurt Tap & Barrel’s bold move. However, much of keg wines’ early success in Vancouver must be credited to the dynamic duo that opened Vancouver Urban Winery.
Mike Macquisten and Steve Thorp rightly figured that if beer can be sold on tap, then why not wine? They went looking for clues in Europe (where wine’s been sold in kegs for years) and south of the border, where it’s been catching on in leading edge cities such as San Francisco, Denver and Las Vegas, not to mention New York.
The two did their homework and decided to work with Sonoma-based Free Flow Wines and raised capital to launch their new Fresh Tap venture in an old warehouse on Vancouver’s east side. The first wines, which were an immediate hit, went into Edible Canada at the Market, which now has five taps and plans to introduce more in due course.
Vancouver Urban Winery now works with 30 BC wineries and supplies some 50 restaurants, mainly in Vancouver and Calgary, with expectations to double that number by the end of 2013. And while the focus is still firmly on 100 per cent BC-grown wines, the company also has its own imported Roaring Twenties brand of Mendoza/Uco Malbec and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
Hot on the heels of the West Coast is Montreal’s Versay, which markets a stainless steel system similar to Fresh Tap. Versay CEO Jean Francois Bieler, who has also been in business for just over a year, originally started in collaboration with his cousin, Charles Bieler, who runs New York’s Gotham Project, now with operations in several states.
Getting licensed in Quebec was challenging and took some time, says Jean François. He suggests the acceptance of wine on tap in Montreal has been more gradual than in BC, where Fresh Tap’s efforts undoubtedly have been buoyed by the ability to work with Okanagan wineries.
“However, initial response has been very good,” reports Bieler. “Even though in Quebec we drink a lot more wine per capita, our wine culture is more conservative, so there’s more resistance to the concept here than in Ontario.”
Versay currently sells to some 25 restaurants in Quebec; a number that Bieler expects will double by the end of this year. With the system just launched introduced in Ontario, in cooperation with Niagara’s Vineland Estates (the first Ontario winery to offer keg wines), he also hopes to be supplying some 50 restaurants by year’s end.
The main difference between Versay and Fresh Tap is that the former has been focusing on imported regional wines, while the Vancouver company is building its keg business very much on BC wine.
Versay currently offers a full range of 10 imported wines that include a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, a Monterey Sauvignon Blanc, a Charles Smith-made Washington State red blend, Sangiovese from Umbria, a Cahors Malbec, a Coteaux d’Aix en Provence rosé and others.
“It’s important to have the diversity so that restaurateurs can vary their options. We’ll probably be adding another five wines in the next few months,” says Bieler, who says that despite initial challenges, attitudes in Quebec are changing.
“Part of the resistance is due to the fact that sommeliers and cutting edge restaurateurs often tend to go for very specialized wines, most of them not mainstream. They like to work with small producers.”
Versay’s typical installation is four taps, which is quite a lot less than the average US restaurant.
Also, says Bieler, “I was surprised to see the rate of growth in Vancouver. Although, if you go to the US it’s completely on fire. In fact, wine on tap is rated the number-one trend in restaurants in 2013.” He says his New York City based cousin can hardly keep up with the demand.
Part of Versay’s launch was made smoother by working with leading sommelier Jessica Harnois as its spokesperson. “She is very media savvy and never had any problems with the concept from day one. She’s really been a great advocate for us,” says Bieler.
Much of wine on tap’s success also depends on how well chosen the wines being poured are. Everyone involved is emphatic that the focus needs to be on anything but bulk wines.
“First and foremost, they can’t be ‘cheap’ wines, because we never want to be associated with anything that’s bag-in-box,” says Bieler, who looks to work with wines in the range of $20 a bottle.
“We also want them to be more ‘happy hour’ wines than ‘dinner’ wines. We want people to feel like they can have another glass — which means the wines might have more dominant fruit and less structure.”
Vineland Estates Allan Schmidt, who works with Versay, recently introduced his wines to Ontario restaurants and he was surprised by the positive response. “We just thought we would test market in a couple of places. But it leaked out and now I’m getting restaurants calling me from all over the province — even some that we’ve been trying to get into for 10 years,” he laughs.
Schmidt feels wine on tap is a good fit for his wines and has invested in the equipment needed to fill Versay-supplied kegs in the winery.
“This is really taking off … it’s really exciting, the whole freshness, especially for Canadian, cool climate wines, which are fresher, crisper and have more acidity — especially the aromatic wines like Riesling and Gewürz, which respond so well to a keg. And the environmental side of it is a huge benefit.
“We found the wines we’ve allocated to keg, especially the reds (but also the whites), you have to treat them a little differently,” says Schmidt. “You have to make sure they’re ready to drink. Once the wine’s in keg, it doesn’t change. You can’t think about bottle shock, or aging, or worry about oxidization. You have to pick and choose the wine a little bit differently — but that’s fine.
“Our (award-winning) un-oaked Chardonnay does very well, so does the Cab Franc — and we’ll be shortly doing a Pinot Meunier.”
One of Vineland’s very first customers was celebrated Toronto restaurateur and Top Chef Canada head judge Mark McEwan, who now has the wines in all of his restaurants.
While Schmidt admits he was originally “skeptical” about wine on tap, the idea of kegging wine is not new. Raised in the Okanagan, his father Lloyd Schmidt co-founded Sumac Ridge with Harry McWatters, and tried to establish keg wines over 20 years ago, using beer lines.
“It didn’t work, because they’re actually oxygen permeable — and not good for wine. The revolutionary part of the process is the special inert hose that Versay uses.”
Both Fresh Tap and Versay use returnable stainless steel kegs, which are kept in circulation based on the brewery model (Vancouver Urban Winery currently has some 5000 kegs). However, some suggest that the keg system is not as sustainable as it first might appear because of the carbon footprint incurred by shipping not only full but empty kegs. No doubt, that discussion will continue for a while.
Okanagan Crush Pad — which has a well earned reputation for being an early adopter — works extensively with Fresh Tap but also uses KeyKeg “one-way” disposable kegs for Haywire Winery wines such as Feenie Goes Haywire, red and white, which it custom blends for the Cactus Club.
“I think Fresh Tap is a good, green option because it’s a reusable vessel. But KeyKeg is also a viable option,” says Haywire owner Christine Coletta. “Fresh Tap makes sense in urban settings but not necessarily in remote areas, especially when you consider the carbon footprint. We use both because we have clients who don’t want to have to deal with the empty kegs. It’s healthy to have the choice,” she says.
Regardless of which system is in use, the verdict on wine on tap is definitely in: Virtually every new restaurant in Vancouver so far this year has opened with at least a couple of keg wines and often more — from newly unveiled Forage to Portside Pub and multi-tap wine bar TWB at Provence Marinaside.
For Vineland’s Allan Schmidt, that likely comes as no surprise. Even though his wine on tap experience has been a relatively short journey, he’s unequivocal and proclaims, “It’s great for our industry, great for consumers and great for restaurateurs.”
Wine on tap 101
How many bottles in a keg? 26
How many litres in a keg? 19.5
How many glasses in a keg? 110
How long do they last? Until the keg is empty. Pressurized by inert gas prevents oxidation from ever occurring.