green wine: one man's push to sell low-carbon vino

If Walter Wirth has his way, every restaurant in Cleveland will soon offer wine on tap. Yes, you read that right -- wine served from a keg, just like cold beer.

And they should be. In fact, there is no good reason not to. In addition to providing the freshest possible product at the lowest possible price, the wine-by-the keg approach is as eco-friendly as it gets.

"This is the lowest carbon footprint wine in the world," says Wirth, owner of Third Leaf, a Cleveland-based wine importer and distributor.

Wirth, a wine wholesaler with decades in the business, believes the time is right for wine on tap finally to make its Ohio debut. Not only has the number of quality wines available by keg increased, but cost-conscious restaurant owners are more eager than ever to shave off a buck or three wherever possible -- and this shaves off close to 30 percent. But more important, today's consumers are savvy enough to see past the pointless pomp associated with all that cork sniffing.

The conventional approach to wine distribution is costly, cumbersome and carbon-intensive. Wine is dispensed into heavy glass bottles, packaged with 11 other heavy bottles into a bulky cardboard box, and trucked to its destination. There the bottle takes up space until it is drained of its contents and hauled away to the trash or recycling bin.

Winemaker David Pechan says that while the kegged wine concept is new to Ohio, it is by no means a new concept. Owner of Miramont Estate Vineyards in Lodi, California, Pechan says that West Coast restaurants have been hip to wine on tap for years because it makes environmental and economical sense.

"It is quite a bit cheaper to ship wine in kegs than bottles," Pechan explains. "You aren't shipping all that glass and those big boxes."

Pechan is using an industry-first lined plastic keg, which is both made from recycled plastic and is completely recyclable. Filled, the 20-liter keg replaces two cases of wine, reducing shipping weight from 76 pounds down to just 50.

The savings don't stop there, says Pechan. "With bottles, we have to pay for the glass, the corks, the labels, and the foils," he says. "All of those things cost money that we have to pass along to the customer. With keg wine, those costs aren't part of the equation."

Nor is the waste that comes from turned wine or corked bottles. Kegged wine is dispensed by low-pressure nitrogen (as opposed to carbon dioxide), an inert gas that prevents oxidation in wine. Thus, the very last glass of cabernet in the keg tastes exactly like the first.

"I think we'll see over the next several years a huge paradigm shift to draft wine," predicts Sam McNulty, owner of Bier Markt, Bar Cento and the upcoming Market Garden Brewery.

McNulty has already signed on with Wirth to sell wine on tap at Bar Cento. In fact, he's been waiting for such a guy to come along.

"It's funny," says McNulty. "When we first built Bar Cento four years ago, we wanted to install a draft wine system but there were no suppliers in Ohio. Walter is definitely on the cutting edge with this."

As a human, McNulty appreciates the eco-friendly qualities of keg wine, he says. As an entrepreneur, he appreciates the value.

"Kegged wine, by definition, cannot be corked," he explains. "And once you open that bottle of wine, you are committed to selling it all before it goes bad." For a place like Bar Cento, which sells loads of wine by the glass and carafe, wine on tap is a no-brainer.

Despite the boxed-wine connotation, wines on tap are every bit as good as wines by the bottle.

"We put the same wine in our kegs that we do in the bottle," says Pechan, whose un-oaked chardonnay and estate-grown cabernet sauvignon will be among the first tapped in Ohio.

Diners in at least three states currently drink Miramont Estate wines on tap, and Pechan thinks the trend is poised to take off.

"This should take off like mad for small wineries," he says. Most small wineries are forced to hire a specially equipped crew come bottling time as the equipment needed costs around $200,000. The equivalent apparatus for kegging wine, Pechan notes, costs just $10,000.

Kegged wine will never replace those dusty gems plucked from the dark, dank wine cellar. The approach is designed around the types of ready-to-drink vintages that make up most wine-by-the-glass lists.

"These are not the best wines that I sell," admits Wirth. "But they are also not the worst. It's a balance of quality versus price."

And that's where the bottle meets the buck. Wirth says that the accrual of savings derived from reduced costs for materials, shipping, waste and spoilage add up to real money. His initial offerings from Miramont will wholesale for approximately $1 per glass. For comparison sake, Wirth notes that those same wines retail at around $15 per bottle. On a restaurant wine list, that price would likely be double.

"Customers will absolutely see savings," promises Wirth.

The big winner in this growing trend stands to be the bartenders, who can say goodbye to pulling corks, preserving opened bottles, and hauling all those heavy bags to the Dumpster.

Photographs by Bob Perkoski
- Photos 1 & 2: Walter Wirth
- Photo 3: kegged wine
- Photo 4: Sam McNulty of  Bier MarktBar Cento and the upcoming Market Garden Brewery

Read more articles by Douglas Trattner.

Douglas Trattner is a fulltime freelance writer, editor and author. In addition to acting as Managing Editor of Fresh Water, he is the Dining Editor of Cleveland Scene, author of “Moon Handbooks: Cleveland,” and co-author with Michael Symon on two New York Times best-selling cookbooks. His work has appeared in Food Network magazine, Miami Herald, Globe and Mail, Wine & Spirits, Cleveland Magazine and others. He lives in Cleveland Hts. with his wife, two dogs, five chickens and 20,000 honeybees.
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