At first, it was a hassle with a jammed bottling line, not the environment, that inspired Jordan Kivelstadt to go into the wine-on-tap business. Seeing one of the stainless steel kegs that winemakers use to store barrel-topping wine, the 30-something entrepreneur thought, why not just put it into one of those? Today, Free Flow Wines puts wine in over 80,000 of those.
Restaurant patrons also have some good, self-interested reasons to order wine by the glass from a keg: busy restaurant staff don't always place the highest priority on properly storing open bottles. Serving fresh wine from a pressurized keg, much like beer is served in bars and restaurants, eliminates that problem.
But it creates another problem for wineries: how to get your kegs out to—and back from—an industry that only knows glass.
"In our world, we signed up to take that pain," says Kivelstadt. "Most wineries didn't make that deal."
From their warehouse in Napa, Free Flow fills and distributes kegs for its clients in a streamlined supply chain that started with an improvised $450 keg filler on a sawhorse in 2009—Kivelstadt stashed the first 80 kegs of Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc in co-founder Dan Donahoe's San Francisco garage. Key to their success is that this isn't another way to sell jug wine. Customers who feel iffy about drinking wine from a tap may be reassured to find familiar Napa Valley names like Peju Province, Hall and Frog's Leap on offer.
Critics of the wine industry's environmental impact often point to the vineyard, but 70 percent of the wine industry's carbon footprint comes from the packaging, according to Kivelstadt. "So far," he says, "we've taken over 5 million bottles out of landfill." Over the life of a keg, which is 30 years, Free Flow claims a 96 percent reduction in CO2 emissions.
Already on the favorable side of the heroes-to-zeros spectrum, one question dogged them: What about all the water they use to wash and sanitize the kegs? Kivelstadt and his director of operations implemented a wastewater system that recycles 99.5 percent of their water—over a million gallons a year they're not drawing from the municipal system.
Now, if some genius can just get restaurants to stop serving good wine in little glasses that are filled to the brim . . .
Free Flow Wines, Napa. 415.626.1215. Restaurants serving Free Flow clients' wine on tap include El Dorado Kitchen, Santé at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, Oso, Solbar, Sam's Social Club, R&D and Kitchen Door. www.trywineontap.com.