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A Cabernet, Ma'am? Will That Be Bottle, Or Tap?

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A Cabernet, Ma'am? Will That Be Bottle, Or Tap?


A Cabernet, Ma'am? Will That Be Bottle, Or Tap?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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And in the wine business, everything old is new again. For example, a growing number of restaurants and wine bars are now serving wine on tap - just like beer. And if you didn't know that was an old way of doing it, it is a return to traditions from Europe and from America, just after Prohibition.

As Cy Musiker of member station KQED reports, it's part of a green evolution in the wine business.

CY MUSIKER: Gus Vahlkamp is wine director for Out the Door, a mini-chain of Asian fusion restaurants in San Francisco. He serves plenty of wine by the bottle, but also four wines drawn from taps behind the bar. And here's why.

GUS VAHLKAMP: Number one: It's better to reuse than recycle. And I think our recycling has probably been decreased by at least half.

MUSIKER: So it's greener for the restaurant. The wine, about two cases worth per keg, stays fresh for weeks because the tanks are pressurized with inert gases. And keg wine is cheaper.

VAHLKAMP: Because the producers aren't adding on the cost of the bottle, the label, the cork, the carton and the transportation it comes in. I mean, I'm able to buy these wines at 25 percent from the wholesale bottle costs. The producer can increase his markup and still make money. I can offer it to the consumer at a discount and still make money. So, I mean, everyone wins on it.

MATT NORELLI: So this is your traditional 5.2 gallon soda keg? It has a little ball valve in here, and...


NORELLI: They still have nitrogen in it.

MUSIKER: We're about 80 miles due north of San Francisco now, in the cellars of Preston of Dry Creek, a small winery that was one of the first to sell its wine in kegs. Matt Norelli is the winemaker.

NORELLI: It's a nod to the farming traditions of the past in Dry Creek Valley, and also a little bit of a nod to same system they have in place all throughout Europe, where they have those little communes and you can go and you can get your jug of wine from your local appellation and bring it back to your house, and you're all set for your everyday table wine.

MUSIKER: Many of Preston's bottlings are meant for long aging, but Norelli whips up blends of less tannic, less oaky wines just for the keg wine market.

VAHLKAMP: You know, it takes a little bit of the snob appeal out of it. It makes it more of a food, which is what it should be. It should - makes it for people just to have it with their dinner, and that's what we want.

MUSIKER: A few miles south of Preston, Hardy Wallace handles sales for NPA winery - The Natural Process Alliance, which takes the economic concept up another notch.

HARDY WALLACE: And a lot of people talk about the romantic sounds of, you know, popping a cork. And you know that...


WALLACE: But what's more exciting and more romantic than...



WALLACE: ...steel on steel, baby. That's a good sound.

MUSIKER: NPA sells its wines only in kegs and three-quarter-liter steel canteens, and only within a 100 mile radius. Wallace makes the restaurant deliveries like a dairy man from America's past.

WALLACE: Every week, I load up milk crates of wine, and I drop off crates of wine to them. I pick up their empties, take them back to be sterilized, and the goal is to have zero waste in packaging.


MUSIKER: That's the sound of a standard bottling line at work at Ballentine Winery in Napa Valley. It's a vivid demonstration of the packaging - corks, labels, bottles and boxes - that this keg wine trend avoids. In another corner of the winery, Michael Ouellette rents space to run his burgeoning keg wine empire, selling wine from Ballentine and a dozen more of Napa's top estates. One reason his business is taking off, he says, the wine industry is just coming out of a historic recession.

MICHAEL OUELLETTE: There's a surplus of quality inventory. And because of that, wineries are opening their marketing strategy to other formats. But once they started and see how smart it is and how green it is, they're embracing the concept.

MUSIKER: Sales of keg wine are growing, but it's still a niche market too small to measure. The biggest limitation: the hassle factor. Custom-made kegs still have to be cleaned and filled by hand, and no one's yet worked out a system to automate the process or do it on a large scale.

For NPR News, I'm Cy Musiker.

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