New advances in wine technology are great news for people who thrive on variety and experimentation. With more Baltimore-area restaurants adopting an array of advanced wine-dispensing systems — from kegs to devices that allow wine to be poured without removing the cork — it's easier than ever to imbibe without committing to a single bottle.
These new systems have a cool factor that makes wine geeks go nuts. But the technology is for more than just show. Implementing these systems translates into more options for customers, cost savings for restaurant owners and environmental benefits for everyone.
One new approach — serving wine out of kegs — leapt onto the regional scene when Aida Bistro & Wine Bar in Columbia and Red Red Wine Bar in Annapolis each introduced a selection of wines available on tap.
"We were one of the first in the region, outside of the cool kids in San Francisco and New York, to have wine on tap," says Red Red Wine Bar owner and beverage director Brian Bolter. In 2011, when Red Red Wine Bar opened, Bolter had to retrofit beer kegerators to work with wine. "We put custom temperature controls on the kegs and changed them to surgical-grade steel and different tubing. Wine has a lot of sugar that will eat into plastic tubing."
By January of this year, when Bolter and his wife, Lisa, opened their second restaurant, Dry 85 (also on Main Street), the wine industry had caught up with them. Companies have created kegerators that are wine-specific, he says. "We don't have to customize anymore."
For customers, wines on tap seem "cool," says Bolter, and they allow for low-risk experimentation.
Arnold resident and Red Red Wine Bar fan CJ Fresty has experienced this firsthand. "You're not locked into one bottle you choose for the evening," he says. "The tap offers several varieties."
At Aida Bistro, experimenting is encouraged; the restaurant offers up to three 1-ounce tastings at no charge. "If you come in and say, 'I really like sauvignon blanc,' I'll say, 'That's great; have you ever had pinot blanc?" says owner Joe Barbera. "We encourage people to try things."
Both Bolter and Barbera also promote the environmental benefits of buying and dispensing wines in kegs. Each keg holds the equivalent of about 25 bottles of wine. Barbera breaks down the benefits, saying, "You're saving 25 bottles, corks and packing materials. It's a green concept. The carbon footprint of one keg is substantially less than two cases of the same wine. And the keg is 100 percent recyclable. When we're done, we stick it in the recycling bin at work."
Barbera estimates that with Aida Bistro's tap system, he's saved more than 15,000 bottles over the past four years.
Wine on tap is a "great way to preserve wines," says Julie Dalton, sommelier at Wit + Wisdom in the Four Seasons Hotel in Harbor East. The restaurant considered offering wines on tap, she says, but ultimately decided against it because of space constraints. Still, Dalton is enthusiastic about both the wine-preservation and cost-savings benefits. Eliminating waste from unfinished bottles "stretches wines' by-the-glass cost, and you can pass the savings on to customers," she says.
Selling wine in keg form is beneficial for winemakers, too. "Wineries recognize that it's the best way to highlight their wine," says Barbera, noting that when selling wine in bottles, winemakers lose control of how their product is stored and cared for once it reaches the restaurant. With the keg system, they have cause for fewer concerns. "It's reliable and consistent," he says.
Several other area restaurants and wine bars also use new types of wine-dispensing systems — including Grand Cru in Belvedere Square, whose house red and house white come from kegs, and Bistro Blanc in Glenelg that has an Enomatic wine dispenser. The "Eno machine" allows customers to use a card — similar to a credit card — to serve themselves wine from the machine during their meal. When they settle the check, the tab from the card is added to the bill.
"It's probably one of the most popular things in the restaurant," said hostess Rebekah Nodar.
Sip Wine Shop & Restaurant, scheduled to open this year at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in the Inner Harbor, will also embrace new wine technologies.
Similar to Bistro Blanc's system, Sip will use a temperature-controlled wine-dispensing machine in which individual bottles are attached to taps. Nitrogen is used to keep the wine fresh in the bottle for about one month (open bottles of wine typically must be discarded after a day or two).
The system will be self-serve. "You buy a gift card from us, put the gift card in the machine and set it for a 1-, 3- or 6-ounce pour," says Sip's chief operating officer, Foster Smith. "The machine deducts the amount from the card as you pour."
Seventy-two wines will be sold via the machine (sparkling wine and fortified wines like port will be available separately), and 6-ounce glasses will range in price from $6 to $40.
"It's a great system," according to Smith, who says that at Sip's two existing locations (both near Atlanta — a hot wine-bar town), they host a lot of parties, seminars and tastings. "There's a lot of interactivity and it's a lot of fun."
At Charleston in Harbor East, owner Tony Foreman has recently started offering a selection of expensive wines by the glass, courtesy of the restaurant's new Coravin system. With Coravin, a thin hollow needle is inserted into a bottle's cork and pressurized with argon, which allows the wine to be poured through the needle without opening the bottle.
"We have built up a pretty ridiculous cellar," says Foreman. "This new system allows us to serve a couple rounds of something."
New by-the-glass options include such luxury wines as 2001 Chateau Petrus ($550 per glass or $3,000 per bottle) and 2006 Domaine de la Vieille Julienne Reserve Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($365 per glass or $1,095 for a bottle).
As is the case with wines on tap, Foreman says the Coravin system is something that has been adopted only in bigger wine cities, like New York and San Francisco.
"But I don't know anyone in New York doing this with the kind of wines we are," he says.
Though it's not the first city to adopt new approaches to dispensing wine, restaurateurs say that, along with Atlanta, the Baltimore region is ahead of the curve.
"We are among the leaders of the pack," says Barbera. "It [wines in kegs] is happening more and more."
Growth in new types of wine dispensing ties into overall wine industry growth. According to The Wine Institute, an advocacy organization representing the California wine industry, in 2012, per-capita consumption of wine in the U.S. was 2.73 gallons (about 70 5-ounce glasses per person), up from 1.87 gallons a decade earlier. There is so much wine in the market that customers are bombarded with choices — making the option to try wines by the glass even more attractive. "We live in a world with a short attention span," says Foreman, "so [Charleston's by-the-glass offerings] fits the way we're living right now."
Wine experts say that much of this growth, and the trend toward experimentation, is driven by younger drinkers, particularly millennials, who appreciate the by-the-glass experimentation made easier by new dispensing approaches.
At Wit + Wisdom, Dalton says wine purchases vary greatly between the business crowd that dines at the restaurant during the week and the younger crowd that comes in on weekends.
"The millennial clientele is looking for something delicious but affordable," she says. "We have a few baby boomers and Gen-Xers who come in and ask a lot of questions, who are very plugged in. But the younger people are the ones who are more willing to experiment."
At Aida Bistro, Barbera has observed the same phenomenon.
"The younger millennial crowd want to try something different, have something trendy, be cool," he says. "Education is important to them, and they'll try several things. As people get a little older, they know what they like, but when they come here they're willing to experiment. Baby boomers will try things, but they probably don't drink as much as they did when they were younger, so they're trying smaller portions."
Bolter of Red Red Wine Bar notices that younger wine-lovers are more comfortable with technology, asking questions and using their smartphones to search for information about the wine they're drinking as they drink it.
"They're more interested in wines from all over, with names they can't pronounce," he says. "They get outside their comfort zone."
And into a great glass of wine.
Next time you go to a restaurant or wine bar, stop yourself before asking for another glass of pinot grigio. It's a big wine world out there; use our experts' suggestions to start drinking your way through it.
• Get rosy Over the past few years, discerning wine drinkers in the United States have accepted what the French have known for years: Rose wines are extremely quaffable and can even be excellent. "Rose is hotter than it's ever been," says Wit + Wisdom sommelier Julie Dalton. "Dry rose is the perfect wine for people who like red or white. It's refreshing and so malleable with food. So many different producers are making roses now. We call them 'patio pounders' — before you know it, you always need another bottle."
• Sparklers According to The Wine Institute, sparkling wine's popularity is on the rise, driven by the Italian sparkler prosecco. In 2013, shipments of sparkling wine and champagne totaled 18.4 million cases, an increase of 4 percent over 2012.
• Ditch the malbec Though it has gained in popularity in recent years, malbec is no longer the safest inexpensive order, says Red Red Wine Bar owner Brian Bolter. "There was a time when you could get a really good malbec at a good price — and Argentina [where much malbec is produced] figured that out, so the price point went up and the quality went down." Good malbecs are still available, he says, but finding them requires a little more effort, and maybe more money, than it did a few years ago.
• Spin the globe According to Wine Institute statistics, in 2011, France, Italy, Spain and the United States together produced 58 percent of the wine sold throughout the world — but dozens of other countries also play a role in the winemaking industry. Today's wine drinkers are more experimental than ever when it comes to region, says Bolter. "Now wines from off-the-beaten-path winemaking regions, like Greece or Portugal, really turn people on. A glass is kind of a trip to the region."