It’s one of those absurdly beautiful wine-country Sundays, when the sun warms a grid of vines across an impossibly inviting valley. This is what winemaker Dan Donahoe and his wife, landscape designer Alexis Woods, see every day from the windows of their Sonoma home. Their friend Mike Lata admires the view as he bastes a leg of lamb for lunch, filling the house with its scent, then tears hunks of bread for a panzanella salad he’ll toss with asparagus, watermelon radish, hard-boiled egg and ricotta salata.
Despite the scenery and smells from the kitchen, everyone’s attention is on a sleek stainless steel box in a windowless corner. Topped by a tower with four slender handles, it is a wine “kegerator” (a cooler designed for kegs) with two temperature zones—the first of its kind. It holds four stainless steel kegs of wine: two reds at 62 degrees and two whites at 42.
Jordan Kivelstadt, one of the guests at the party, approaches the machine. He and Donahoe co-founded Free Flow Wines, the groundbreaking new company that fills those kegs. Kivelstadt pulls a tap, filling his glass with wine.
“That beer is really red!” jokes Matt Licklider, a co-founder of Lioco wines, one of Free Flow’s first clients.
“This is wine. Have you heard of it?” Kivelstadt replies, playing along. “It’s like rubbing alcohol, but with fruit flavors.”
The wine on tap is Lioco’s 2009 Indica, a cherry-inflected Rhône-style blend of old-vine Carignane, Grenache and Petite Sirah. It is elegant and ambitious, yet easy to drink, and it retails for $20 a bottle. “Wow, I actually like it out of the keg better than out of the bottle,” Licklider says after taking a sip. “It’s super-fresh.” Lata, the chef at Fig restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina—which serves Lioco wines on tap—grips a kegerator spout like it’s a handle on one of his prized Ducati motorcycles. “I want one,” he says softly.
Thanks to Free Flow, restaurants around the country are buying kegs full of top-quality wines from innovative producers like Lioco, Copain and Bonny Doon. And those are just the kegs filled by Free Flow, which is based in California. A second wine-kegging company, New York City’s Gotham Project, serves East Coast restaurants like Manhattan’s Tertulia and The Breslin. These kegs—and kegerators—are changing the way people drink wine, for the better.
“Bottles are a flawed delivery mechanism,” Kivelstadt says as he fills carafes at the party with a zingy Sauvignon Blanc from Free Flow’s house brand, Silvertap. “For hundreds of years, we’ve been shoving dead tree bark into glass and saying that’s the best way to hold wine. Come on!”
Unlike kegs, cork exposes wine to oxygen. That’s a good thing for the handful of wines with flavors that improve during bottle aging, like top vintages of Bordeaux and Barolo. But oxygen dulls most wines made to be drunk right away—that is, about 90 percent of all wine—particularly at restaurants, where wines sold by the glass can sit in open bottles for days. In a properly sealed keg, even when tapped repeatedly over three months, the last ounce of wine tastes as fresh as the first.
Wine kegs have an eco-advantage, too. By-the-glass orders account for as much as 80 percent of the wine sold in restaurants, upward of 600 million bottles a year. If just five percent of by-the-glass wines came from a keg (one holds 26 bottles’ worth), it would keep over 30 million bottles out of landfills.
Donahoe and Kivelstadt didn’t have that grand a vision when they launched Free Flow in 2009. The friends are both winemakers in Sonoma; Donahoe is the owner of Teira, Kivelstadt of Qualia. Curious about alternative packaging, they experimented at first with 80 used beer kegs in Donahoe’s garage. When they founded Free Flow, they went after high-end, boutique wineries as clients. “Bag-in-a-box and screw caps made a mistake,” says Kivelstadt. “They went for the low end of the market. When you do that, you spend the rest of your career fighting for the top. For this to succeed, it has to be premium.”
Initially, kegs’ frat-boy connotations were an obstacle. “Wine in a keg sounded like wine in a box,” says Michael Meluskey, chief financial officer for Au Bon Climat and Qupé, now one of Free Flow’s biggest supporters. But newer winemakers like Lioco’s took to kegs immediately. “It hit on all cylinders,” says Licklider. “We liked the European concept of wine being less ceremonial, just part of the meal.” With around 50 wineries signed on so far, Free Flow’s client list is now ballooning to include larger wineries like Simi and Beringer.
As Lata puts the last touches on the meal, the group turns its attention from the kegs to the food. The chef, known for vegetable-driven menus, serves heaping bowls of spring salads along with his roasted lamb. Buttery sweet peas, mint leaves and pea shoots are delicious with the sweet, basily freshness of Silvertap’s Sauvignon Blanc. The carafes are flying, and Donahoe, Kivelstadt and Licklider keep up a friendly competition over who gets to refill the empties.
Inevitably, the conversation turns to the guys’ other main obsessions: cars and motorcycles. Kivelstadt wants to build a race car out of an old Miata and gun it around Sonoma’s Infineon Raceway. Donahoe and Lata became friends, Lata recalls, by “showing each other pictures of our bikes on our phones.”
“Hey, I’ve got the [Ducati] 916 charging,” Donahoe says, as the chef brings out dessert. Lata smiles. “Don’t get them talking about motorcycles; they’ll never stop,” Kivelstadt protests. A cornmeal cake, crunchy with ground almonds and topped with strawberries and sweetened mascarpone, stops the bike discussion for a good stretch. But later that afternoon, Donahoe and Lata will gleefully wreck the serenity of the valley as they roar between rows in the vineyard. “We were inspecting the vines,” Donahoe says innocently as he pulls off his gloves and glasses.
Emily Kaiser Thelin is a writer and former food editor at Food & Wine. She lives in Berkeley, California.
Finding Great Wine on Tap
These restaurants buy and serve amazing kegged wines.
Todd Rushing of Two Urban Licks was a kegged-wine pioneer at this rotisserie place back in 2004. Always on his rotating list of 42 selections: a Silvertap red and white. 820 Ralph McGill Blvd.; 404-522-4622.
Lioco and Silvertap wines are on draft at Fig, chef Mike Lata’s restaurant. 232 Meeting St.; 843-805-5900.
New York City
At Burger & Barrel, wine director Natalie Tapken pours Pinot Grigio and Dolcetto from Santa Barbara’s Palmina winery. 25 W. Houston St.; 212-334-7320.
Behind the gorgeous bar at Prospect are kegs of Skylark winery’s Red Belly red blend—perfect with pastrami sandwiches from chef Nancy Oakes. 300 Spear St.; 415-247-7770.