First impressions are everything, and wine on tap is still on a first impression basis for many. As an emerging market and one battling the stigma of bad wine kegging practices of the 1970’s and poorly boxed white zinfandel, wine on tap is still on the upward climb before it is embraced as a wine drinking norm. Thanks to the diligence and commitment of wine on tap pioneers like N2 Wines founder Jim Neal, however, a standard of excellence has been set, and wine on tap is now in a position to widely scale. We toured his wine facility and learned first hand how critical a commitment to technical due diligence is from the winemaker to the bartender to ensure wine on tap leaves a lasting impression.
Neal proved that kegging delicious, premium wines is the easy part because we tried them, right from the keg. It’s getting the wine from the keg into the glass where wine on tap meets its biggest challenge. His and partner winemaker Jeff Hunsaker’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon is rich and spicy with well-balanced tannins and hints of blackberries. Their 2009 Chardonnay has a nose of subtle vanillas and finishes with crisp, clean fruit. And their 2010 Chardonnay still in the tank is beautifully floral, finishing with perfectly balanced hints of oak and butter. These wines can taste drastically different from one bar or restaurant to the next, though, if proper tapping procedures are not followed.
Mediocre system installations and poor keg line maintenance are the largest culprits to a poor wine on tap experience. To name a few, if keg lines are not kept clean, wine will pick up residue and affect the wine as it is dispensed into the glass. If tubing used from the keg to the tap is oxygen permeable, it will cause air to leak in and oxidize the wine. If wine is kegged and tapped without 304 stainless steel components, the wine’s acidity will corrode the steel and ruin the wine. Furthermore, if kegs are pressurized without the precise mix of nitrogen and a hint of carbon dioxide to balance the natural Co2 in wine itself, the wine will deteriorate slightly in the keg, losing the freshness and aromatic nuances that were in the wine at the time of packaging.
Neal has been experimenting with all of the wine on tap possibilities since 2005 for a technical combination that will sustain and complement the complexities of wine. Now that he’s found it, it is his goal to not only bolster the potential of wine on tap to scale but to also share his model as industry best practice. To do so, he’s continually testing and re-testing the model and developing vital partnerships.
One of these partnerships is with Burgstahler Machine Works in St. Helena. Owner Wayne Burgstahler is designing some of the finest 304 stainless steel wine on tap valve systems. These valves, like the one pictured, provide the technical resilience needed for wine with 304 stainless steel while aesthetically complementing wines’ renowned reputation for elegance and class. With a growing waitlist for valve system orders, Burgstahler is one of many who can attest to the staying power of wine on tap.
In every major U.S. city, wine on tap is in at least a dozen restaurants, with new restaurants installing wine on tap systems every month. Because of the efforts of those like Neal, wine on tap is leaving not just a first impression but a permanent impression on the way we drink wine.
Some wine on tap spots that Neal has helped establish and promise a great glass of wine are Salt House in San Francisco; Farmstead in St. Helena, CA; Southie in Oakland, CA; Rancho Pinot in Scottsdale, AZ; and others scattered across Texas, Colorado and Arizona. Neal is also working on installing a 10 tap system at Cindy Pawlcyn’s Brassica restaurant in St. Helena, scheduled to open in early September. Find out more about Jim Neal and N2 Wines on their website, www.n2wines.com.