Which Came First? The Wine or the Keg?

The ultimate marker of Spring has occurred in the Twin Cities and thousands of people, including me, are more satisfied, nourished, and relaxed as a result. Yes, the seasonal restaurant Sea Salt at Minnehaha Falls is running full speed for the season, well staffed and ready to make people like you and me very happy.

This is my go-to place to bring out of town guests (assuming that it’s not 7pm on a beautiful summer evening, when the line can be two hours long). If you have not yet been to Sea Salt then change that! Mid-afternoons during the week the lines are usually short and service is quick.

Can there be anything better to absorb our few and cherished beautiful days in Minneapolis than sitting outside with a glass of wine or beer in hand, in a public park, watching the dogs and bikers and joggers and families, while devouring a perfect oyster po-boy, a pile of shrimp, maybe a half dozen oysters, and a cup of gumbo?

The opening of Sea Salt a number of years ago (followed by Tin Fish at Lake Calhoun, Bread and Pickle at Lake Harriett, Sandcastle at Lake Nokomis, and Como Dockside in Saint Paul) shows logical and progressive thinking at the governmental level. I’m still not legally allowed to bring a bottle of wine to a Minneapolis park for a picnic, but at least I can find a glass of wine to buy in these wonderful environments. (Sidenote: Minneapolis should learn from Chicago, where it’s totally legal to bring your own wine and beer to shows at Millennium Park. The verbiage is one of those rare instances of a regulation being sensical: “as long as guests are orderly and respectful of the Park and other guests.” LOVE IT!)

One of the best things about Sea Salt that it’s printing money not only for themselves but also the city. Their numbers are public through the contract with Minneapolis, and even not including 2014 and 2015 they have poured over $1.5 million into their lease with the city plus added hundreds of thousands of dollars of improvements to a space that before operated at a consistent loss. It’s a win-win all the way around.

In a recent visit to Sea Salt I was delighted to see a huge range of wines available, including this:

Six wines on tap!

Keg wine is an interesting subject. In 2010, when the Blue Plate Restaurant Company was designing the plans for what would become Scusi restaurant, they wanted to lead the charge for keg wine in Minnesota. They installed keg lines and made room for four wines on tap at both Scusi and The Lowry, with plans to offer more at their other locations.

At the time, keg wine was just starting to catch on in select markets, mainly on the west coast. Wineries weren’t sure about it. Kegging companies didn’t know how to handle it. Wine distributors didn’t know how to hook up the units or maintain the lines (in the beer distribution world, they have teams dedicated to cleaning tap lines and fixing keg mechanical problems to keep the beer a flowin’). Nobody knew how to handle keg deposits and returns (for a while, some wine kegs actually came with a prepaid FedEx sticker that you’d put right on the keg and ship it back to the winery).

As a result, when Scusi opened in October of 2010 there were a total of only five wines available in Minnesota in keg format (mainly the cheap stuff from Coppola, plus Saintsbury Rosé and Tangent Albarino). Over time, frustrated by the lack of variety and inventory available, Blue Plate dropped their keg program.

They couldn’t commit to wine in kegs because the wholesalers weren’t stocking it.

The wholesalers weren’t stocking it because restaurants weren’t installing tap lines dedicated to wine.

It became a chicken and egg problem.

Then about two years ago interesting things started happening. A company called Free Flow Wines saw the needs of the U.S. market for a wine specialist keg operation, one who could handle logistics of keg return, education on tap systems, and integration of tap handle marketing and other such things. Stuff the wine industry didn’t have a clue about. The list of wineries that use Free Flow Wines is impressive to say the least, and more are coming on board every day.

As kegs started to arrive at more Minnesota wholesalers, the discussions started to come up at more restaurants (especially ones that were in the conceptual phase). Room was made for keg lines, and restaurant owners learned the ins and outs of wine tap line maintenance.

As the wine kegs started to take hold, the cost of business on the logistics end started to come down for it’s all based on volume and (forgive the pun), flow.

Graphic from Free Flow Wines. Note North Dakota .. they are at the lowest logistics cost because of the success of keg wine in that market, where as South Dakota is the opposite and Minnesota is in the middle. 

Then when a place like Sea Salt, which goes through a TON of product, suddenly installs six tap lines, then the ball is really rolling.

I’m happy to say that it looks like keg wine has finally taken hold in the Twin Cities.

But is this a good thing?

Benefits to keg wine:

  • Freshness. The wines are preserved and don’t touch oxygen until they hit your glass. You’re relatively assured of brightness and freshness with every glass.
  • No corked kegs! Unless of course the wine is infected with TCA at the winery, which has happened.
  • Speed of service. No more opening bottles. No more watching a server that can’t use a corkscrew struggle endlessly.
  • Keg tap handles. They are fun, and help bring wine back to the fact that it’s a beverage first and foremost.
  • Environmental happiness. Totally reusable and keeps more bottles out of the recycling line or in the trash.

Disadvantages to keg wine:

  • You’re not really saving any money. This is something most people don’t realize. The cost of the keg, the cost of shipping, the cost of the special handling at the winery required to keg instead of bottle, and the cost of equipment and maintenance at the restaurant basically negate any savings from having no bottles or corks. I’ve heard consumers openly complain that the wine should be “at least half the cost” if it’s from a keg. Nope. (In the end this is not a disadvantage, for it’s simply the truth.)
  • Lack of selection. Yes, there are more keg wines available in Minnesota than ever before, and more being added every month because this is a growth category. But on my last count, after surveying all the major wholesalers, we are only at about 100 selections and rarely are they all available. Compare that to over 10,000 wines that are available in Minnesota by the bottle. Yes, keg wine is taking off but you’re still seeing the same selections all over the place.
  • Wine served at odd temperatures. Temperature control on a wine keg system is not easy. The whites often get served far too cold (stored side by side with the beer), and the reds are served either too cold or too warm. I’ve run into this many times, where restaurants kinda don’t know where to put a keg of red wine. Sometimes it sits in another room, sometimes it’s even kept in the cooler with the whites and the tap line is shocks the temperature up twenty degrees through a glycol wrap. Regardless, it’s not as consistent as a bottle coming out of the cellar.

In the end, of course it’s a good thing. When you see wine available on tap via a keg, have fun with it. This shift to availability of keg wines represents something magical: that wine is being consumed for fun and enjoyment! The more we can relax and enjoy a glass without trying to stick our noses in it and pontificate endlessly, the better off we will be.

Now onto the next step: installing a keg line at home!

See you at Sea Salt!

Leave a Reply