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Wine Untapped

“The wine must be common to all, insisted Plutarch, just as the conversation must be one in which all will share.”

-Paul Lukas, Inventing Wine

In other cities, restaurants have embraced keg wine as an answer to the craft beer explosion. Who will be first in Buffalo?

In the time of the early Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder, in his encyclopedia of natural science, documented detailed accounts of an ancient wine industry, including production methods, where to find the best grapes, regions, and styles of taste most popular to his time. Two thousand years ago, thanks to Pliny, we know that the most coveted wines were thick, syrupy, oxidized affairs made from raisins and then aged for decades to impenetrable black goo. Hardly considered fit for consumption today, the main concern in the first century AD was preventing spoilage, even so many wines could pass for vinegar.

Before the invention of wine bottles and trains, decent wine was a luxury product difficult to preserve and transport, largely affordable only to the elite. The poor masses made do with sour beer.

In 79 AD, Pliny’s nephew, Pliny the Younger, was left behind to record history as his wine-loving uncle sailed on a rescue mission towards Pompeii into the thick cloud of smoke at the base of Mount Vesuvius’s fiery apocalypse. He was never to return.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. At the #3 spot in ratebeer.com’s top 50 beers is Russian River Pliny the Younger Imperial/Double IPA. Given today’s vast spectrum of alcoholic beverages and bargain pricing, the class barriers that once segregated wine and beer drinkers need no longer exist. The Pliny men, if alive today, could procure good wine for a pittance or collect at dear prices specialty craft beers.

Plutarch undoubtedly would approve of the staggering growth rate of wine consumption in the US. According to an NPR report, “What America Spends on Booze,” wine sales rose from a measly 16.2 percent of total alcohol sales in the early 1980s to 39.7 percent in 2012—just eight percent away from the leading beverage of choice, beer. Wine has also replaced liquor as the second most popular alcohol consumed at home. Wine has indeed become “common to all,” though it may be that craft breweries are dominating the conversation.

For decades, beer has accounted for approximately 50 percent of all alcohol sales; however, recently there has been a drop in the sales of mass-produced beers, i.e. Miller and Budweiser, while craft beers were up over 11 percent in 2012. Likewise with craft spirits and ciders, these micro-business categories are booming. From pickles to single hop beers, local and small is blazing the trail forward.

As a wine nutcase, I am pleased and slightly alarmed. Pleased because now everyone can be a connoisseur—Cigar City Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout-Apple Brandy Barrel Aged, anyone? The craft beer crowd understands wine drinkers’ obsession to write poetically about taste, and both camps share some of the same critical language and rating systems. We talk about the nose, the aroma, the bouquet, the weight, the ageability, and the value. One might then expect that craft wine, beer, bourbons, cider, etc., would be united along the same party lines, or at least be present at the same party. Not quite so.

I am alarmed because I do not see “craft” wine making the same sweeping appeal as the craft beer movement. Most people do not understand that there is a craft wine category. Small production wines have no special niche, fun labels, or marketing platforms other than with wine geeks in the know.

Since the economic crash of 2008, grand cru fine wine dining in major cities across the US has dwindled considerably. Restaurateurs’ ability to pay a designated wine-only sommelier has become a rarity. The premium wine category, while alive and well in retail, is about to be sidelined in restaurants alongside a plate of oysters Rockefeller.

This turn away from luxury wines on the dining scene does not diminish the popularity of wine. Domestic consumption has never been so glorious. Americans have a both a vibrant wine culture and internationally renown wine regions. Vino-centric restaurants are now loaded with affordable bottle lists and pared-down cellars. Casual, non-intimidating dining establishments are expanding their offerings to varieties of wine with bargain price tags, i.e., dry lambrusco, crémant du Burgogne, aligoté, and garnacha. The value-to-price ratio has never looked so promising for wine lovers, so what could possibly be lacking?

Just look to craft beer for the answer. Wine on tap.

In smaller cities such as Buffalo, draft beer is wooing away belt-tightening wine lovers with the explosion of inexpensive, tapped craft beers in restaurants and bars. Across the country, wine keg companies have been working with wineries to compile a comprehensive selection of wine in the keg. There are some excellent wines available. In Atlanta, Two Urban Licks has 42 stainless steel barrels of wine ready to tap. In New York City, Gotham Project is a wine-keg company featuring New York Finger Lakes wines. Imagine ordering up a glass of Dr. Frank Riesling on tap while enjoying your next Friday fish fry! Irving Street Kitchen in Portland, Oregon offers “barrel to bar” wines on its wine list. They boast a tasty selection on tap from prestigious Oregon producers such as of Eyrie, Chehalem, and Brooks.

Wine in the keg is sweeping culinary centers such as San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. In Buffalo, wine on tap has not yet made its debut. (Kudos to the unique wine preservation systems for bottled wine at Pizza Plant, however.)

Despite the lack of wine taps, slashing pricing on bottle lists is helping to propel the craft wine movement forward. Recently opened Tappo Restaurant in downtown Buffalo lists every by the bottle selection on its wine menu for $15.

The next logical step for restaurants is to invest in the commonsense, fresher, greener, wine keg system. There are no bottles to recycle (600 million bottles per year for wine sold by the glass), no wasted wine, no cork problems, and the wines stay fresh indefinitely. The wine is put directly from barrels in the winery into stainless steel kegs. Eliminating the need for wine bottles saves the winery an estimated 25 percent in production costs while also reducing its carbon footprint. Each keg holds 26 bottles, a little more than two cases of wine. As the tap is poured, inert gas, such as argon, goes in and wine comes out. The prices on wine by the glass could be lowered significantly by this system without sacrificing quality. Lack of wine choice is a moot point, as many premium wineries are offering wines by the keg and some are creating signature keg blends. Temperature control problems would also be resolved—nothing worse than warm cabernet in July.

More importantly, wine would be uncorked, on draft, in pubs right alongside beer.

The bottom line is craft beer is wooing customers away from wine with its no-nonsense presentation. If consumers are offered a choice between draft beer and draft wine at the same price point, the beer industry’s decades long 50 percent hold on liquor sales may go a little flat.

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