I recently sat down with Adam Jed, owner of Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco, to talk about his innovative wine program. When I first dined at his restaurant in late February, I was intrigued by the wines available by the glass. There are 12 options and they are all served “on-tap”, similar to how beer is commonly stored and dispensed. I was curious why he went to great lengths to offer wines in this format, and wanted to understand the benefits to his restaurant and to diners. After our discussion, I am amazed that more restaurants are not pursuing similar programs as offering wines by-the-glass via traditional wine bottles now seems silly and wasteful.
Adam explained that the idea was based on his experiences drinking wine in the south of France. He often went into the village market where they had a large barrique, or barrel, of wine with a tap. He brought his own jar, dispensed the amount of wine that he wanted and paid by the liter. Sometimes the wine was great, and sometimes not, but this was the traditional way to enjoy family-made, local wines. When Adam and his wife were making the plans for Bluestem, they wanted to leverage that experience and create a wines by-the-glass experience that was environmentally friendly, cost effective and gave diners access to great wines. They wanted to provide their customers with by-the-glass options in the $7-$13 range, and felt that the the choices by the bottle in this price range were not at the quality level that they wanted to serve.
So, Adam approached several winemakers to talk about purchasing wine in stainless steel kegs and at first it was a tough sell. “What ultimately got the winemakers excited”, Adam explained, “was the idea of the carbon footprint and how green it really was.” This is because each kegs holds the equivalent of 27 bottles of wine (20 liters). “The associated costs due to weight and delivery for 27 traditional wine bottles is substantial,” Adam continued. “To put it in perspective, a case of wine weighs around 60 lbs. So, 27 bottles of wine weighs well over 120 lbs. One stainless steel barrel is only 50lbs.” Another benefit is that after a barrel is empty, they return it to the winery to be cleaned and immediately reused for wine. Glass bottles, on the other hand, get used once and are then recycled at a processing plant. That process uses considerable energy and resources.
Because the wineries do not have to bottle, label and pack the bottles of wine, they are able to sell the wines to Bluestem a discounted price, which the restaurant passes along to their diners. Bluestem can offer customers various portion sizes ranging from a glass to a full-liter carafe and because the wine is replaced with argon and nitrogen once it leave the keg, there is no oxidation of the remaining wine. This means that the last glass from this keg will taste exactly the same as the first. This is a welcome relief as I think about the many times I have ordered a glass of wine in a bar or restaurant that tasted awful because it was from a bottle opened a long time ago. Not a concern when the wine is from the tap.
In addition the the environmental benefits of the wine program, the restaurant as a whole is very committed to leaving as small of a carbon footprint as possible. This includes not using table cloths (saves them having to be washed) to the wooden floor tiles (recycled beams cut across the grain) to a wonderful art installation on the back wall (made from medical brochures).
One of the great things about the Bluestem wines on tap program is that you can try some really great wines that are rarely available by the glass. The Paul Hobbs Chardonnay and Long Meadow Ranch Cabernet are two great examples. A glass of each of these wonderful wines is around $13, which is a deal for diners looking to try a wine by these well known wineries. My personal favorites from the list are made from varietals that are not as commonly seen on wines by-the-glass lists. The Marsanne is a wonderful Rhone-style white, and at $10 a glass is a perfect accompaniment to the seared scallops dish. My first time at Bluestem I had a veal special which was a wonderful companion to the Verdad Tempranillo blend ($11).
I really hope that more restaurants embrace this type of a wine program as it really benefits the consumer and the environment. The wines will always be fresh and tasty, and can be offered at a substantially lower cost.