It's Friday night at the Vancouver Urban Winery and I'm spoiled for choice. Twenty wines by the glass, all on tap.
Vancouver Urban Winery is not a traditional winery – no wine is made on the premises. Yet it has a winery licence, so it's not quite a pub and is restricted to selling one-ounce tasting glasses.
The difference is that all 20 wines on tap (from a rotating list of 32) are kegged here on site by a groundbreaking small business that is quickly changing the way we drink wine in British Columbia. And its uncommonly cool headquarters, an old steel foundry in Railtown with 24-foot ceilings and exposed wooden beams, is a beautiful place to hang out.
I urge you to visit: on weekdays for a tour of the facilities, or Thursday and Friday night, when the cozy tasting bar is open to the public. Curl up on a leather couch by the fireplace and order the Sommelier's Choice (one of several tasting flights that all include five one-ounce pours).
While nibbling on charcuterie and cheese or duck rillettes à l'orange, ask one of the friendly servers to explain the FreshTAP system. You may not have heard about it yet, but you're bound to see their stainless steel kegs at a local bar or restaurant soon.
Founded by Steve Thorp and Mike Macquisten, FreshTAP is Canada's first custom keg packaging operation. In partnership with Free Flow Wines in the United States, the company receives finished bulk wine in steel drums or barrels from local wineries and a couple abroad and pumps it from pressurized tanks into 19.5-litre stainless steel kegs. Much like keg beer, the wine is kept under nitrogen to protect against oxidization. When connected to a draft line at restaurants and bars, the wine is drawn by tap and pushed from the keg by an inert, flavourless, colourless gas that preserves the juice for several months.
The benefits for customers are huge. Stale wine by the glass is probably one of the most common crimes committed against fermented grapes. Once uncorked, a bottle does not last more than a day before it starts losing its fragile flavours and aromatic intensity or developing salty tanginess and prune-like characteristics. With the FreshTAP system, as long as wine is properly transferred and the draft lines are kept clean,which is not always the case in some pubs), every glass poured should taste as fresh and clean as the winemaker intended.
For restaurants, it's a great way to keep costs down (less waste, less expense, less storage, etc.) and offer better wines by the glass. And now that FreshTAP has bundled the whole distribution package – they will deliver the kegs to restaurants, pick them up when they're empty, sanitize and refill – it's so much easier for wineries to get on board.
When I first wrote about the wine-on-tap trend about 18 months ago, only one winery in Canada, Naramata's Nichol Vineyards, was kegging its own wine. And they had to do everything themselves.
I remember sitting down to dinner with Gordon Fitzpatrick, president of CedarCreek Estate Winery. Although curious about the trend, which had already taken off by leaps and bounds in the United States, he was still a bit skeptical.
"My father will never go for it," he said, referring to Senator Ross Fitzpatrick, founder of the winery.
It was not just consumer perception. Wine on tap is often associated with the widespread plonk served in boxed bags. At the time, it required a large investment for the kegs and cleaning systems. Quality control had not yet been proven. And restaurants were not on board. But now, fewer than two years later, more 50 restaurants and pubs in B.C. and Alberta are serving wine on tap. And CedarCreek is one of the 36 wineries using the FreshTAP services.
"Dad's very happy," Mr. Fitzpatrick says. Talking by phone, he recalls tasting his 2011 chardonnay the day after it was put in kegs in mid-September. The vintage still had not been bottled, that's how young it was.
"It tasted fresh and clean, just like it did at the winery," he says.
Back at Vancouver Urban Winery, Stag's Hollow's Larry Gerelus is also impressed with the way his Simply Noir is tasting out of a keg. "Nice acidity, bright fruit. It's not closed at all."
At the long tables behind us, about a dozen employees from local clothing company Aritzia have gathered for after-work drinks. A couple of the guys are confused about why they can order only one-ounce pours. "Can't we get two double tasters?" they ask the bartender.
But I think the flights make this experience unique. My only complaint regards the Christmas candles, cinnamon-scented headache inducers that have no place in a sophisticated tasting bar.
That and the fact the tasting bar is not open more often. Only on Thursdays and Fridays? Pity.