Wine in kegs is a hot topic in the US right now, and there are two very clear sides and lines. Personally, traveling and living in Europe since 1998, I am captain of the cheerleading squad for wine on tap (insert high jump and pom pom wave here), finally! Typically American, what many fail to recognize is that this is NOT a new concept, and something that is simply a new concept in our country. Being a primarily beer culture until quite recently, we associate taps with 'pub's' and cheap pitchers of beer flavored water, and I think this is the problem a lot of the 'haters' are having with wine on tap. In Italy, almost 100% of the tap systems will have both wine and beer, and this is how it has always been. What is new about this concept is using quality wine, sourcing from top producers, and using top of the line systems to pour the wine out of put together by trained professionals. Wine on tap will never replace 'bottles', it's ridiculous for people to even mention this absurdity, what it does is offer both the consumer AS WELL AS the producer a new opportunity in the US wine market.
In Europe wine has been sold as 'sfuso' or 'in bulk' for as long as wine has been produced. The Romans even had two 'tiers' of wine. As soon as the wine became 'limpido,' or 'clear,' it was sold directly from the 'dolia' or amphora buried in the ground, and then the higher quality wine was racked into another, above ground amphora container and sold directly in the amphora itself. Then, before being sold in 750ml bottles, wine was sold in 'damigiana' or large glass and straw containers of varying sizes, from 5 to 54 liters. Trattoria's, cafe's and bars have all been serving wine on tap out of 'fusti' or kegs, for 80+ years in Europe, and in fact, at one time it was the only way wine was served in most places, by the carafe. The wine list as we know it today is a recent addition in Italy.
All quality estates have wine that does not 'make the cut.' Possibly it comes from young and new vineyards still not mature enough to produce bottle quality wine, 2, 3 or 4 years old (sadly, some estates do put this juice in bottle... and then call it quality, but that is another blog :). Some estates have wine produced intentionally to sell in bulk. There are a number of factors that lead to certain 'tanks' being destined for 'sfuso' rather than bottling. This will change vintage by vintage, and estate by estate, but finally being able to get our hands on some of these 'seconds' for the US market is a dream come true for me.
In 2005 I worked at Felsina in Tuscany. On one of my first days I saw a building near the cellar with a line of locals outside, all holding different sized and shaped containers. I was totally confused... some of the containers were so large I couldn't understand what they would be buying. When it was explained that they were buying Felsina wine in 'bulk'; white or red and there was even 'sfuso' olive oil, I had a full on dropped jaw. I couldn't believe it, was overcome by excitement at this discovery, which was followed immediately by a veil of disappointment that this was an opportunity only available in Europe. Buying great wine in bulk for a few bucks a liter seemed too good to be true. This is possibly when I really first fell in love with Europe... needless to say, while living at Felsina, I don't even want to know how many liters of that 'sfuso' I consumed, sorry liver.
The first person to start talking to me about 'wine on tap' in the US was my long time friend and maestro, Paulo Villela from the Bohlsen restaurants on Long Island. He was one of the NY pioneers to get the system set up in their restaurant, 'Verace' on Long Island: http://www.veracerestaurant.com/, and he opened the concept and restaurant in 2009 with Barbera, yes - you guessed it, Iuli Barbera. Fast forward to the summer of 2010, I meet Bobby Stucky and Lachlan Patterson of Frasca restaurant here at Iuli in Piedmont. Lachlan was looking to do wine on tap at their new place in Boulder, Pizzeria Locale, and so we worked out getting them some of the Iuli Barbera and San Lorenzo Verdicchio: http://www.pizzerialocale.com/. Lachlan and Bobby introduced me to Jim Neal who was doing the kegging for them in California: http://www.n2wines.com/press .
Thanks to Jim Neal's innovation with the kegging of the wine from these bulk totes, to top quality stainless steel kegs, the tap system itself in the restaurants, and passion and dedication to the project, this little personal 'dream' of my own to bring quality Italian bulk wine to the market has finally come true! Here is a great piece recently written on the subject, mentioning Jim Neal from Wine Spectator:
I have worked personally with a selected few of our estates to choose the 'sfuso' to send to the US. In order to save costs (it costs money to register wine under an appellation, the DOC, DOCG, AOC, ect., every single bottle with those letters on it comes with a cost), and by most European wine laws, the wine being shipped in these 1,000L totes must be declassified as VdT, or table wine, which as we know cannot have a vintage or grape variety on the 'label'. However, our Indie producers that are part of the project are all proud to attach their names to this wine in order to guarantee to you that the wine you are drinking is in fact exactly what we have listed it as - and the 'seconds' to their bottled products we all love and drink every day.
Before this project and collaboration with Jim Neal, a lot of this 'sfuso' from these producers was sadly just sold to the local cooperatives, to be blended in with other wine. This 'sfuso,' when coming from the Indie producers, is almost always made from the very same certified organic vineyards that make the bottled goods you are all familiar with. This opportunity for them to sell it instead to Jim for kegging in the US is exciting for us all, and we all hope that you will enjoy experiencing a little bit of the 'trattoria' feel in your own favorite local spots that have jumped on board with this old Italian tradition.
For more technical information, photos of places across the country that have 'tapped up' with Jim Neal and Indie juice, or a presentation on the N2 system, please just write to us!!