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At 3 Tiers Bakery and Cafe, wine and beer go keg-to-keg behind the bar.

Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

What's on tap? Wine, of course

  • Article by: BILL WARD
  • Star Tribune
  • June 22, 2011 - 3:05 PM

If you want to have a bottle of wine at Highland Grill, you'd best get there soon. Within a month or so, the popular St. Paul eatery will be serving fermented grape juice one way only:

Out of a keg.

"I'm going to pull all my bottles and just go with eight taps," said Luke Shimp, co-owner of Blue Plate Restaurant Co. Earlier this year, he brought in a half-dozen keg wines at sister restaurant Scusi, and "the response there has been overwhelming."

Several local restaurants -- including Scusi, Sopranos Italian Kitchen and 3 Tiers -- are already, uh, tapping into this trend. The merits of keg wine are many and varied, ranging from reduced packaging and shipping costs for the wineries to fresher flavors and less spoilage for consumers.

"It's really great for wines that you want to drink young," said Bryan Herr, co-owner of 3 Tiers in Minneapolis. "You don't have the waste, and the wine stays fresh indefinitely."

When Herr and his wife, Sarah, wanted to augment their bakery/cafe business with a wine bar, the emerging keg option was a natural fit. Since expanding their hours into the evening last month, they have sold more wine from five kegs than from their dozen-plus bottle selection.

"I thought we'd have objections," Herr said, "like 'Is this boxed wine?' I was prepared for having to educate our clientele, but it's been the opposite. They have been, 'Oh, that's cool' or 'Oh, I had this in California.'"

Keg wines have been hot in San Francisco and Napa for a couple of years, and of course it usually takes a good while for such movements to migrate from the coast to our decidedly landlocked locale.

But the holdup in this case was logistics: getting the kegs here -- and back.

So while the process is somewhat greener and cheaper -- eliminating bottles, labels, cork, cardboard boxes and packing material -- the consumers' costs aren't reduced, at least for now.

"We're basically helping the wineries with the startup costs" of new kegs, Shimp said, adding that once the recycled kegs get into a rotation, "we should see cheaper juice."

The kegs themselves range from 5.15 gallons (about 26 bottles) to 15 gallons, often in converted soda or beer barrels. The tap system utilizes stainless steel to stymie wine's corrosive acidity and an inert gas such as argon or nitrogen to draw out the liquid.

Never seeing oxygen means the wine stays fresh; oxidation from opened bottles often forces restaurants to dump the remains, although some (ahem) have been known to serve such tired wines by the glass.

The wines that have made their way here have strong pedigrees: Frog's Leap zinfandel and sauvignon blanc; Saintsbury pinot noir, chardonnay and vin gris (rosé); Hobo chardonnay and cab/syrah blend, and a tasty new albarino from Tangent.

Plus, inevitably, red and white wines from Coppola at the new Sopranos restaurant in St. Louis Park.

"Of course, you've got the 'Godfather' director who's also an Italian himself and a mob-themed restaurant," said general manager Billy Ellis. "And now everyone wants to see a copy of the contract, not for the contract but for Coppola's signature.

"We sell a boatload of that wine."

And this is one rising tide that figures to lift a boatload of restaurants.

"Now you're getting people coming in and saying 'Oh, that's wine?'" Shimp said. "But in 24 months, you're going to see these everywhere."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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