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Kegged Wine- Drinkink outside the Box


Drinking Outside the Box

by: Stephanie Peters


The next time you ask your server “what’s on tap?” you might want to be more specific--- wine or beer?  Wine on tap, a new trend, has started to pick up steam in Arizona with wine bars and local restaurants making room for kegs filled with mainstream and boutique wines.

So, what is keg wine? Before you assume we are talking about something similar to box wine, think again.

“The general public tends to think keg wines are a lesser product,” says Paula Woolsey, professor of viticulture at Yavapai College and director of sales at Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, “Unfortunately, people are prejudiced about keg wines when first introduced, thinking they are like cheap box wines.”

The concept is similar; box wines and keg wines were both designed to hold bulk wine and to keep oxygen out. In kegs, the wine is dispensed out of an aluminum keg in a way similar to draft beer. Instead of using carbon dioxide, wine is pushed through the tap using an inert gas like nitrogen or argon under low pressure, never allowing oxygen to get in and spoil the wine. Every pour from the tap produces a fresh just-opened-bottle taste from the first glass to the last, just how the winemaker intended.

And the similarities pretty much end there. While box wines are created using excess leftover wine; kegs may be filled with high quality wine that goes through the same process as bottled. “At first customers are apprehensive about keg wines, but once they try them, they realize it’s a high quality wine.” says Renee Bartlett-Webber, manager of The Horn Saloon in Camp Verde. The Horn’s wines on tap range from mainstream wineries such as Frances Coppola to boutique and local wineries like Arizona Stronghold (Cottonwood, AZ) and Sutcliffe Vineyards (Cortez, CO.) 

At Sutcliffe Vineyards in Cortez, Colorado, their keg wine is prepared in the same way as their bottled wine. The grapes are grown, picked, cleaned, and then stored in oak barrels to ferment. After aging, some of the wine is then pumped into kegs using argon gas and the rest is filled into bottles. John Sutcliffe, owner of Sutcliffe Vineyards, takes pride in the quality of his wine by overseeing all aspects of the wine and kegging process.

“Wine responds better when it is in larger containers, the wine is happier in a 5.16 gallon keg than a 750ml bottle,” says Joe Buckle, Sutcliffe Vineyard’s winemaker. “We also do not have to worry about wines going bad, which is usually associated with cork problems. The keg is the best way to keep wine fresh for wine by-the-glass programs.”  

For restaurants and wine bars, freshness is always a concern with wine available by the glass. When a customer orders a single glass, far too often they receive a glass from a bottle that has been open too long. Oxygen has had time to spoil the wine leaving the taste less than desirable. When wine is poured from a keg, it tastes as if it was poured from a new bottle every time due to the inert gas keeping oxygen out. Also, wine in a keg does not become susceptible to being handled wrong due to environment changes. Unlike bottles that move from room temperature to refrigerator and back again over the course of one night, the kegs stay stored in a refrigerator behind the bar, cooled to help preserve the wine, leaving the wine to taste exactly how the winemaker intended.

            The Horn was one of the first restaurants north of Phoenix to implement a wine tap program, starting first with 12 then branching out more recently to 20. “Keg wines allow for great wine all the time.”  Horn owner, Stephen Goetting says.

Horn server, Ashley Marshall, comments that keg wines can offer more of a dining experience. “We are able to bring people into the thought of pairing their wine with their entrees, by offering samples in order for the customer to find the wine that fits their palette and entrée choice.”

            Keg wines have been praised by the wine industry for the environmental and affordability perks it provides. For wineries and vineyards, there is less labor involved and manufacturing costs are reduced because there is no need for bottles, labels and corks. In return, environmental benefits are seen through saving trees and reducing waste. The kegs are reusable, and save restaurants from tossing bottles and wasting wine. Once a keg is empty it can be sent back to the distributor or vineyard to be cleaned and reused. One keg can hold 26 bottles of wine, or about 130 glasses of wine at a time; and over its lifetime can eliminate the use of 3,000 bottles. Shipping and packaging rates are reduced for transporting kegs, allowing for wine to reach restaurants at a more affordable cost. It is approximately 20% cheaper per keg than shipping cases of wine, a savings that is then carried on to the customer.

Wineries that sell through distributors are able to use distribution filling stations to keg their wine, allowing them to transport their wine at an affordable cost nationally. Without bottles and labels to persuade a wine drinker, keg wines are served as casually as beer. This can be seen as a detriment to wine service, with the romance of uncorking a bottle of wine no longer available at the table.  Woosely feels  this adds to the prejudice against keg wine, because the sense of branding is lost and customers are uncertain what is in the keg. Arizona Stronghold, among many wineries, are changing this mindset by creating wine tap handles like beer taps, and advocating wine bottles be available for customers to see. 

Keg wines are not a new concept; they have had a long history in Europe. It has only been within the last ten years that keg wines have become mainstream in America; first starting on the coasts and now reaching into states like Arizona. Currently, hundreds of restaurants have wine by the keg programs; Two Urban Licks, a restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, has the most with 80 wines by tap and growing.  The owner, Todd Rushing, is responsible for creating and executing the country’s first large-scale wine-on-tap program.  Rushing partners with Silvertap, one of many companies that are helping wineries and vineyards tap their wine in order to provide quality wine to restaurants across the country. With perks like sustainability, cost-effectiveness, less waste, and the guarantee of a fresh glass of wine with every pour, in time keg wines may be considered an industry standard rather than a kissing cousin of cheap box wine.