Close Menu

Wine on tap trend surging in London

Being able to turn on your tap and have it run red with wine sounds like one of the more madcap ideas devised by Marie-Antoinette during an uneventful afternoon at Versailles, but the concept has become a reality in London and the trend is fast gathering pace.

As with many innovations in the wine world, the concept originated in the US and has taken an embarrassingly long time to trickle across the pond. Restaurants in key US cities like New York, LA, San Francisco and Atlanta have been selling wine from kegs since 2011 and the number of on-trade venues selling wine on tap in America mushroomed by 68% last year.

Leading the wine-by-the-keg charge in New York are Charles Bieler and Bruce Schneider, founders of The Gotham Project, which made its debut in 2011 with a Riesling in keg from the east side of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes.

Supplying venues like the Grand Central Oyster Bar in Grand Central station and Terroir in Manhattan, the dynamic duo helped change the way Americans consume wine. “We’re not just selling a concept, we’re selling a better glass of wine,” says Bieler, adding, “We want to offer wines that can compete with the best in the world at their price point.”

In the last four years the pair have grown their wine on tap offering considerably, which now includes a Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc, a Columbia Valley Chardonnay, a Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, a Provence rosé, a Sicilian Nero d’Avola, an old vine Viura from Rioja and a Mendoza Malbec.

Back in London, Vinoteca was one of the first to pioneer the trend. Encouraged by strong sales, last summer the wine bar and bistro chain started selling a Pfalz Riesling by Axel Neiss on tap from recyclable kegs for £3.95 a glass, which became an overnight success.

“It’s going off like a frog in a sock and is doing even better than we expected it to,” co-founder Charlie Young told db at the time. “People are happy chugging it as a thirst-quencher or drinking it as an accompaniment to summery dishes.”

Gus Gluck, manager of Vinoteca’s fifth site in King’s Cross, is full of enthusiasm for the company’s wine on tap offering. “It has been bloody successful – we sell more Riesling on tap than any other of our wines. You can’t play it safe in the wine game,” he warns, revealing that Innocent Bystander Pink Moscato is also proving popular on tap. Vinoteca’s next trick is a Pinot Noir on tap by Axel Neiss.

Seeking to capitalise on Britain’s unquenchable thirst for Prosecco, trendy Italian restaurants like Pizza Pilgrims in Soho, Tozi in Victoria and Homeslice Pizza in Covent Garden have been selling the Italian sparkler on tap for £5 and under over the last few years despite the fact that the practice was banned in 2009.

This year the trend was adopted by pubs across the UK, which is exacerbating the problem. Bruno Cernecca of Italian specialist merchant Vini Italiani in South Kensington is baffled by the practice.

“The Prosecco you get on tap is so pale you could confuse it with soda water and the bubbles are so big you can hear them bursting out of the glass,” he says, adding, “The issue requires urgent attention; it’s a scandal of misplaced identity that would never have been allowed to happen if people were trying to flog Champagne on tap.”

Keen not to get caught up in the kerfuffle is wine supplier Jascots, which launched frizzante-on-tap brand Vino Vispo, made by Veneto producer Enrico Bedin, earlier this year. It was recently taken on by classic cocktail bar The Lucky Pig in Fulham, a chic little sister to the Fitzrovia original.

In addition to Vino Vispo, Jascots offers a red, white and rosé on tap from Pays d’Oc producer Mas de la Source. “In the fast paced casual dining sector, the wine industry needs to keep up by stripping back its pretensions,” says sales and marketing director Miles MacInnes. “It’s time to start thinking outside the bottle and make wine accessible, fun and appealing to consumers.”

MacInnes is impressed with the set up at The Lucky Pig, describing the Vino Vispo pour from a shiny brass tap on the bar top as “super sleek”. He believes wine-on-tap is a golden opportunity for the trade to tap into the success of craft beer and talk to the same consumers.

“Craft beers are capturing the imagination of younger drinkers as they’re exciting, fun and edgy. Wine has traditionally failed to do this but selling it on tap opens up the category to 18-24 year olds who may not otherwise consider it,” he says.

In March Bibendum laid down the gauntlet when it released a nine-strong range of wines on tap including an Australian Shiraz, an Italian Sangiovese and a French Pinot Noir in response to increasing demand from consumers.

“Wine on tap offers a bit of fun and theatre to the traditional serve as well as a greener shipping and storage alternative,” believes sales director Mark Riley. Unable to reveal names at this stage, the supplier is in talks with restaurants and bars nationwide and is actively targeting millennial consumers with the offering.

Seeking to raise the game is Roberson, which is getting behind wine on tap in a big way. Last December the Kensington-based merchant collaborated with new seafood venue Rex & Mariano in Soho, owned by the Russian restaurateur behind Burger & Lobster, on a first for the UK: a wine offering served entirely on tap. Among the eight wines on pour are Wind Gap Trousseau Gris 2013 from California’s Russian River Valley; Broc Cellars Carignan 2013 from the Alexander Valley; and Provence rosé M de Minuty 2013.

In keeping with the restaurant’s pared down interiors, the gleaming stainless steel taps are connected to a sheet of marble, with the wine names written in chalk on a blackboard above the silver fleet. Proving just how serious it is about wine on tap, Roberson currently offers 50 wines by the keg and is keen to expand the selection should it prove popular enough.

“The most innovative bars and restaurants in the US have incorporated wine on tap into their offer – I knew it was something we had to bring to the UK,” explains senior buyer Mark Andrew, adding, “The winemakers we work with love the format as the wines taste as fresh in the glass as when they left the winery.”

None of the 50 producers Roberson works with sold their wines in keg before the project but were all keen to try it out. A number of Old World producers the merchant approached declined the offer, but the presence of a St. Emilion among the line up hints that not all producers in Bordeaux are resistant to change.

“Once people see it succeeding we’ll get more producers onboard – they just need to get over that fear barrier,” believes business development director Adam Green, who thinks the trade will be slower than consumers to embrace the idea. “Consumers are a lot more flexible and open-minded than we give them credit for; it’s the gatekeepers in the trade who are concerned about it,” he reveals.

Green is adamant that in order for wine-on-tap to work in the UK, the wine coming out of the taps needs to be high quality. “We don’t want it to be a race to the bottom to find the cheapest wines to serve, we’re dealing with quality wines that retail for up to £25, the common thread being that they are ready to drink rather than lay down,” he says.

The recently opened Burger & Lobster on Threadneedle Street is championing wine on tap via three reds and three whites from the Roberson portfolio including La Liebre y Tortuga Albariño, which was sourced specifically for the restaurant by Roberson as the popular variety pairs wonderfully with lobster and the chain wanted a point of difference from other wine-on-tap lists around town.

The super trendy Mission under the railway arches in Bethnal Green has also hooked up with Roberson to offer a quartet of California wines on tap including Copain Tous Ensemble Syrah and Tatomer Meeresboden Grüner Veltliner hailing from Santa Barbara.

In an exciting development for the trend, fine dining restaurant Avenue in St James’s has just taken on four Californian wines on tap from Roberson, illustrating that the concept is capable of moving beyond the realms of casual venues. Avenue was an early adopter of Coravin, so is clearly keen to bring the latest technological innovations in wine to its discerning diners.

“It’s great that a restaurant of that calibre is supporting the idea as high-end venues are the core of Roberson’s business,” says Green, adding, “Avenue is the first classic restaurant to sell wine on tap – it will be interesting to see how it’s received there.” He is also in talks with D&D London and Gordon Ramsay Holdings about the offering.

The benefits of wine on tap are obvious – it saves a considerable amount on packaging and shipping costs, which can be passed on to the consumer, meaning they get a higher quality wine at entry-level. The recyclable kegs are also considerably more eco-friendly than their bottled counterparts, lowering a wine’s carbon footprint and saving restaurants’ storage space, which for a casual dining venue is often in short supply.

In terms of the quality of the wine, the keg format ensures the wine stays fresher for longer, guaranteeing the consumer a consistent serve rather than the prospect of being handed an oxidised wine that’s been lounging in a bottle for days.

“I have no doubt that wine on tap will take a sizable chunk of the casual dining sector within five years,” proclaims Bibendum director Willie Lebus. “It offers huge flexibility to customers who already enjoy such advantages in the world of beer, and will help to democratise wine by bringing high quality examples to a much wider audience.”

MacInnes of Jascots is equally gung-ho about wine on tap’s prospects in the UK. “Wine on tap will go mainstream when people realise how good the quality is. In two to three years it will be accepted as a way of serving wine and will herald a new dawn in terms of the way wine is perceived,” he predicts.

Roberson’s Green describes wine on tap as “the future” of by-the-glass offerings. “It’s an irresistible proposition – there’s no smoke and mirrors. The cost savings mean you can spend more on the wine in the glass, giving the consumer a better wine for the same price.

It doesn’t take away from the theatre of the serve as it’s replacing by the glass wines, which are largely poured out of eyeshot, and taps allow customers to try before they buy, which will encourage them out of their comfort zones,” he says.

The next step will be for producers to take inspiration from craft brewers and start introducing quirkily branded tap handles to bar tops. As for the competition, Green welcomes it, believing a rising tide lifts all ships.

“Any fledgling concept has a better chance of succeeding when several people are making noise in the category, so we’re keen for other players to enter the game,” he says. Suppliers take note – it’s time to tap into the trend.

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No