Joe Barbera didn’t order enough kegs.
Barbera, co-owner with his wife, Mary, decided last year to take their Aida Bistro and Wine Bar “to the next level.” They closed their popular Columbia restaurant in a busy strip mall and built a stand-alone building on Columbia Gateway Drive, a short distance from both I-95 and U.S. 29 on the D.C.-Baltimore corridor. The new building includes a dedicated cellar for 20 kegs, which dispense not beer but wine through stainless steel pipes and taps in the restaurant’s upstairs dining room. The system was installed by AC Beverages of Annapolis.
Aida moved into its new quarters in December. The wine-on-tap program has proved so successful that Barbera is now planning on expanding the operation by half, to offer 30 wines on tap. He hopes to have the extra keg system set up by late summer.
“It was going to be the most-best wine-on-tap system or the most expensive beer system in the country,” Barbera says. “Luckily, it turned out to be the former.”
Wine on tap has gradually caught on in wine-centric restaurants along the East and West coasts. It’s somewhat like wine in a box, in that it promises freshness for a large quantity (nitrogen in the kegs protects against oxidation), except with better quality wines than typically available for box consumption at home. And while it may seem like a throwback to the days when you’d ask a bartender for a glass of “chablis” and he’d squirt some from the soda hose, there are definite benefits.
Barbera cites advantages to the winery, the restaurant and the consumer. Kegging is cheaper than bottling, which yields savings that can be passed to the customer. The restaurant doesn’t have to worry about spoilage, corked wines or keeping opened wines fresh. Diners needn’t worry if the bottle was opened two days earlier or whether the wine was properly preserved in the meantime. “If you come in today and have a glass of wine, and come in tomorrow and order another glass, it will taste the same,” Barbera says. “The first drop is as fresh as the last.”
Customers can order wine by the 3-ounce taste, the 5-ounce glass, a 10-ounce “half carafe”or a 20-ounce carafe. That gives diners more flexibility in their wine choices with dinner.
Barbera has focused on smaller, boutique wineries that are eager to trade the hassle and expense of a bottling line for the ease of kegs. That means greater variety for consumers compared to restaurants that rely on major labels for their by-the-glass programs. Aida has used Dancing Coyote wines from Northern California, Melville Vineyards from Santa Barbara County, Calif., and is working with the highly regarded Radio-Coteau winery to bring in a Russian River chardonnay from Sonoma County, Barbera notes. He also has Big Fire wines from Oregon on tap.
Barbera includes local wineries, such as White Hall and Stone Mountain from Virginia. “We are big supporters of local ingredients, so we wanted to support local wines as well,” he told me. “If I can find a Maryland winery I like that is willing to put their wine into kegs, I’ll add that.”
There is also an environmental benefit. A 5-gallon keg keeps 25 standard glass bottles from the recycling bin or the landfill.
Barbera is so proud of his keg system he’s willing to give customers a tour. Just ask to see his “man cave.”