Wine Storage for the Present and Future

Courtesy Free Flow Wines
Courtesy Free Flow Wines

Once upon a time, before you were born, fermented beverage alcohol was discovered. Like all good discoveries, it was some time before it was scaled up for mass production.  Your prehistoric ancestors who lived 9,000 years ago were little better than your present-day friends when it comes to their difficulty relaying the details of their adventures with the technology of fermentation, but we do know some things. Wine was the first beverage alcohol, and ancient wines were made of wild fruits including grapes. Also, this intoxicating spirit was for a time contained in clay jars and stoppered with clay, cork or leather.

For personal consumption, the glass bottle was an advance that allowed folks just like us to open a bottle for friends and family, in good times and bad. Glass has the advantage of being less porous and able to be sealed with a higher-quality cork, allowing for bottle-aging. For many years, there was no standardization of bottle sizing, but over time glass bottles became available in standard sizes.

Thousands of years after the original glass bottles, a new technology developed by the Celts was brought to Rome, the epicenter of wine consumption: the wooden barrel. Able to hold many gallons of wine for easy transport, the barrel was the perfect vessel for large-scale shipping. Wooden barrels and glass bottles changed the way wine was stored and transported, and thus it has ever been, even though this system had obvious shortcomings, like spoilage, breakage and inefficiency.

Until recently, that is. The 20th century saw a new wine-storage technology: wines stored, shipped and served from kegs. After a few false starts mostly related to inconsistencies caused by breathable lines and consumer bias in favor of bottles, kegged wine seems poised to be the Next Big Thing in on-premise wine-by-the-glass sales.  Already pervasive in Europe, this method of storage is making serious inroads in North America. Jordan Kievelstad’s company, Free Flow, is the largest in the US, with more than 25,000 kegs representing over 130 wineries and distributed in 42 States.

This one technological advancement keeps wine fresh longer, saves money on packaging, is less expensive to ship, and easier on the environment. Kegged wine, by all accounts, is the future of commercial service, and some variation of it will surely be made available for home consumers.

Here’s a brief summary of how it works: a vessel usually made of stainless steel is aseptically filled with wine, and topped off with an odorless, colorless, flavorless gas that provides the pressure to force the liquid out. Kegs are shipped to operators, who install them and return them when they are empty, to be refilled - like beer kegs. It sounds simple, but the benefits are manifold:

  • Glass is heavy, and fragile. It takes a lot more bottles to ship the same amount of wine as a keg can hold. Stainless steel, like glass, does not alter the flavor of wine.
  • Shipping all those heavy bottles adds more carbon to the atmosphere, as trucks and ships move them from place to place.
  • Labels, corks, pallets and boxes all come from trees. We need trees to help clean the air we breathe.
  • Wine without corks never tastes “corked.” In fact, kegged wine stays fresh up to three months - far longer than its bottled cousins.
  • About 600 million bottles of wine are sold by the glass every year, and only about 27% of those bottles are recycled. A properly maintained keg can be used for 20 years or more.
  • Because the keg uses nitrogen to pressurize the wine out of it, oxidation is never an issue. The wine tastes as it should, every time.
  • The efficiency of kegged wine increases an operator’s profit margin.
  • While some wines benefit from aging in the bottle, kegged wine is blanketed in an inert gas, which means that they are put in the keg at their very best.

Does it sound too good to be true? Kegged wines offer many advantages, but there are some limitations. While fresh, ready-to-drink wines are perfect for keg service, the kind of big wines that benefit from bottle aging still do best the old-fashioned way. Also, anytime you have hardware of any type, there are  real-world scenarios to watch out for (i.e. kinks in the lines), but overall the cost of installing this system is certainly reasonable.

Despite the few cautionary notes, this technological advancement has so many advantages to the environment, the operator and the consumer that its success is inevitable. Check your local wine bars to see who is offering kegged wines on tap and try it with friends.