Gettin’ Ready For my First Kegger (as a winemaker)
So I’m about to go to my first kegger. As a winemaker, I mean. Scratch that- I mean as a winemaker putting their own wine into a keg, Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir to be exact!
I love the concept: cost-effective, eco-friendly and flavor-saving. But of course, as a winemaker, I had a lot of questions about exactly how the process works. Would I have to prep the wine differently? Where there any unique risks or quality control points I’d have to worry about that would be different than a normal bottling run? How would the kegs actually get to the restaurants, how would they be dispensed and then what happens to the empty kegs?
Luckily I knew I could count on my friend Jordan Kivelstadt, Founder and CEO of Free Flow Wines, for a little elucidation.
I used to share my “garage winery” space in Sonoma for Garnet Vineyards with Jordon, Rob and their team back when they were a little start-up just a few years ago. In a short time, they outgrew the space and since then have expanded into a new facility in south Napa by the infamous “Crusher Man” statue by the intersection of Hwy 29 and 121.
Yesterday I met up with Jordan, Rob, Heather and the gang for a little tour of Free Flow Wines’ new keg-straveganza. From a winemaking point of view, here’s how it works:
At my winery, I fill up a 525 gallon (that’s around 220 cases of wine) stainless steel “porta-tank” with tasty bottle-ready 2012 Garnet Vineyards Monterey Pinot Noir and forklift it onto a flatbed. Flatbed truck then trucks on over to Free Flow Wines’ facility just over the county line, and Rob and his crew position it near their custom-built “kegging line” and hooking up a sanitary hose fitting to the tank.
Evidently, they had this thing custom built by a German beer-kegging specialist (but we won’t hold that against them- the beer part, not the German part!). Each stainless steel keg that will be filled (one porta-tank will fill around 100 5.16 gallon kegs) automatically goes through a three-step cleaning and sanitizing process which heats the metal up hot enough to kill any bad yeast or bacteria that might be hanging around. What’s cool (literally) is that each keg then gets zapped back to room temp by a custom-made cooling collar….because I don’t want cooked wine (and neither do you). Then the kegs are filled under inert nitrogen counter-pressure (to exclude oxygen), are labeled with a custom paper collar and marked with a “born on” date and time sticker (for batch QC and tracking purposes). The filled kegs then get stacked on a pallet and forklifted into Free Flow’s bonded warehouse, waiting for a distributor to request one for a restaurant or other outlet (love the three-tier system, eh?).
Free Flow then ships it to the distributor and I invoice the distributor for the wine. At that point, Garnet Vineyards no longer has to worry about the keg because Free Flow works with an independent contractor partner for rounding up all the kegs around the country, separating them from the beer kegs (I don’t want any Lagunitas in my wine, than you very much) and herding them back into the barn at Free Flow in Napa, where they await being cleaned, sanitized and re-filled.
Note that the pool of Free Flow kegs is communal, i.e. that my wine may be going into a keg that once held somebody else’s wine….at first I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but then I was walked step by step through their cleaning, sanitizing and monitoring process. I won’t bore you with the ATP swabs, luminometers, batch testing and German engineering details, but I got talked down off my ledge once I understood that nothing from anyone else’s wine was ever going to touch my wine. Awesome!
How is kegging wine different from the normal wine bottling process? From a QC point of view, I’m pretty excited that they can completely steam-sanitize the line, and it’s a smaller, simpler line with fewer moving parts and hence, fewer possible entrance points for airborne contaminants. Additionally, in a 5.16 gallon keg there is actually a really low oxygen-to-wine ratio (far less than in a 750 ml bottle) and so therefore wine in a keg will have less chance of oxidation than a standard format. Since there is no cork (Garnet does twist-off anyway), there is no chance of cork-taint spoilage from that source. The wine will be put into the keg “enjoyment ready” i.e. not needing any further aging, which is one point of difference I see with traditional “bottled” wine. However, since the average American consumes a wine within 72 hours of purchase and everyone buying a $11 glass of Garnet at a restaurant expects it to be from the current release that would be in the marketplace anyway, this is a non-issue.
I can clearly see the benefit of kegged wine from a winemaking quality point of view but how does it perform in a restaurant? I’ve heard that servers and bar-backs love it because they’re not opening bottles all the time (or throwing half-empty bottles out). I gotta believe that the customers like it because they know they’re getting a “fresh” glass every time and not something that’s been open for a week (yuk!). Inert gas (a combo of nitrogen and carbon dioxide) pushes the wine out, preventing any oxygen from reaching the wine which means that it gets into your glass in the same shape that I intended it to.
However, the one weak point I can see is “end user education”. Though a wine’s high acid and alcohol content (relative to beer and soda) means it will actually perform better than those drinks in a keg-hose-dispenser set up behind the bar, some of the quality of the experience will depend on how clean (or not!) the establishment keeps the set-up. Because wine can oxidize into vinegar and some other less-than-tasty aromas, restaurants, cruise ships and establishments serving kegged wine will need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions in keg line maintenance. To that end, Free Flow has launched a website called trywineontap.com. There, all involved parties can learn what best practices are, how to get wine-specific (no beer!) parts and how to make it work its best. I think sales reps will also have to learn some new tricks but hey, we all have to go with the flow, right? And you can believe me, I will still be doing some spot checking on the road! All in all, I am super-excited to give Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir from a keg a whirl!!!
So…… grab yourself a red solo cup, stay tuned for roll-out (we’re still finishing making the custom tap handle so it’ll be a couple of months) and be sure you RSVP to the invite for my first Garnet Vineyards kegger!
Interested in carrying Garnet wines in a keg? Adventurous retailers, email me here: firstname.lastname@example.org and come on down to my kegger!
Alison Crowe is the winemaker at www.garnetvineyards.com and can also be followed @GarnetVineyards as well as www.facebook.com/garnetvineyards