Messina Hof Winery: Tapping Into Keg Wine

Photo Courtesy of Messina Hof

By: Nan McCreary

One of the hottest trends in the wine industry today is wines on tap. Far from its inauspicious beginnings in the 1970s when haphazard equipment and practices marked the keg wine debut, drinking wine on tap is now a totally different story. Dramatic improvement in equipment and a better understanding of operations have led to a boom in the market. Many bars, restaurants, and wineries now offer premium tapped wines by the glass and even the growler.

  One enthusiastic advocate of wine-on-tap is Paul M. Bonarrigo, CEO and winemaker at Messina Hof Winery, a pioneer in Texas wine and one of the oldest and the most awarded wineries in the state.

  “We’ve always kept our finger on the pulse of what’s happening nationally, and we saw that the trend of wine-on-tap was coming back,” Bonarrigo told The Grapevine Magazine. “In 2013, we decided to build a prototype at our Estate Winery in Bryan, which allowed us to learn the system and do small-batch kegging and get feedback from customers.” 

  The introduction was extraordinarily successful, Bonarrigo said, so Messina Hof started branching off into bars and restaurants. Today, the winery has wine on tap at all of its four winery locations: Nine in Bryan, four in the Hill Country, 18 in Grapevine and 24 at its newest location, Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen in Richmond, near Houston.

  For Bonarrigo and a host of wineries, bars and restaurants, wine-on-tap is the future. In a wine-on-tap system, wine is pushed out of stainless steel kegs and into plastic tap lines with inert gas, either argon or nitrogen or a blend of nitrogen and C02. Using stainless steel containers and inert gas prevents oxygen from getting into the system, maintaining the wine’s freshness. Tap wine is typically stored in 20-liter kegs, which yield 26.6 bottles of wine or 120 glasses. The wine will stay fresh for months — the last tap will be just as clean and bright as the first.

  “For the bar or restaurant, it’s a huge savings,” Bonarrigo said. “No matter how efficient you are, you will always have product go down the drain with bottles, whether it’s from oxidation or just a spoiled wine.”

  The retailer also saves costs related to bottles, corks and packaging that is no longer needed. Keg wine prices range from $150 to $250, which makes them cost-effective. Some experts say that keg wine saves about 50 cents a bottle or $6 a case. Keg wine is eco-friendly too. Kegs are reusable, reduce waste generated by commercial packaging, save trash from landfills and reduce an establishment’s overall carbon footprint. Over its lifespan, a keg will replace one ton of bottles.

  For the consumer, wine-on-tap offers guaranteed freshness in the product, plus more options to try a variety of wines. “We are now seeing more premium wines on tap,” Bonarrigo told The Grapevine Magazine. “When we first started, many wineries were selling house wines from the keg. Now we’re seeing wines at $12 to $15 a glass on tap.”

  Consumers also see more options in serving sizes, from small taste-size pours to liter-sized carafe servings. According to Bonarrigo, the most popular option at Messina Hof is wines by the growler, which customers can fill and bring back over and over again. “We sell a ton of growlers,” he said. “The growler concept drives the train on what kind of wines we keep on tap, which are wines that are very approachable and easy to drink, wines that people can enjoy with an everyday dinner.”

  Typically, kegs are for wines meant to be enjoyed young, which is 75% of the wines sold in America. Both red and white wines are available, although red wines may be barrel-aged before transferred to a keg. At their Harvest Green location, which features a restaurant, Messina Hof serves 12 products from 24 taps, including dry to sweet white and red wines and even a Port.

  “Harvest Green is a fun environment,” Bonarrigo said, “and people are just coming out to have a good time, so we sell more tap wines there than at our other locations.”

  Occasionally, Bonarrigo changes out wines, depending on what the vintage yields and how the wines are moving. If it’s a “hot mover,” he will keep it on tap. He also offers “niche” wines occasionally. For example, he’s now adding a Rosé wine, which will be on tap during the spring and summer season.

  The biggest challenge to keg wine, according to Bonarrigo, is ensuring the kegs are clean before refilling. “Optimally, we deplete and refill kegs every six months,” he said. “Anytime you keep wine for an extended amount of time, you could get spoilage without even realizing it. You could also get some oxygen seepage. I especially worry about my white wines, and I tap them often to make sure they’re still fresh.”

  While these keg systems are not difficult to clean — the operator uses the gases and pressure to run hot water and a chemical solution through the system — it’s important to be vigilant. If the tap lines are not cleaned properly, it can cause off-flavors and a diminished experience for the guest.

  Messina Hof’s tap systems vary by location, and with the recent opening of Harvest Green, the winery was able to take advantage of the newest advances in this rapidly developing technology. In this system, lines go through cold plates to cool the wines as it goes to the tap, offering more convenience than set-ups that require pre-chilling of the wine. In other words, the wine goes in warm and comes out cold. 

  “This system is easier to set up and manage,” Bonarrigo said. “When the keg is empty, we just put another keg on the line rather than have to wait to chill a new keg. This way, you always know what you’ve got, and it’s easy to switch kegs in mid-service.” 

  Bonarrigo also installed a nitrogen generator at the Harvest Green location. “It’s more expensive,” he said, “but we don’t have to manage nitrogen tanks. Plus, nitrogen does just as good a job as argon.”

  Occasionally, Bonarrigo will use a Guinness Blend — 75% nitrogen and 25% CO2.  “This is fun to do with wines like Moscato. It gives them a spritz of effervescence without carbonating it.”

  He has yet to try sparkling wine on tap since they require a dedicated system that uses 100% CO2 to preserve the kegs in the fizz.

  With the increasing popularity of wine-on-tap, many bars and restaurants are adding more wine taps to their handles. Some are even retrofitting existing beer taps into wine taps. Wine taps require a higher grade of stainless steel and special tubing—and use different gasses — but they are still a viable option that can reflect an establishment’s business goals.“

  It’s a very smart strategy for bars and restaurants, especially if they already have a tap for beer, to convert one or two of their handles to wine,” Bonarrigo said. “In the long term, this is going to be something that sticks. As logistics get better and keg wine gets easier to manage, wine-on-tap will continue to be a big trend.”

  Clearly, wine-on-tap is here to stay. Sure, you won’t be seeing a Grand Cru Burgundy wine or a First Growth Bordeaux on tap. And you may lament the ritual where a sommelier opens a bottle at your table and invites you to sniff the cork. But as wine-on-tap becomes more fashionable, the choices in your glass will follow. For the oenophile with an open mind, it’s an exciting time to be exploring the world of wine.

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