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.