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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
‘Keggers,’ Elevated:
Winemakers Tapping Into More Sustainable Vessels

Wine packers such as Sonoma-based Free Flow Wines are taking advantage of the reduced stigma of stainless steel-bound wine, along with increased ambitions from winemakers to reduce their packaging footprint.

Not so long ago, many wine lovers would have looked down their noses at any vintage that didn’t come from a heavy, corked, glass bottle. But in recent years, casual wine drinkers have become more open to other vessels — such as cans, boxes and screw-top bottles, which used to convey lower-quality wine, as well as lighter-weight glass and even plastic bottles — especially as the sustainability benefits of these alternatives has become more apparent.

And the rising popularity of wine in these formats, especially in the low- and mid-range markets, opened the door for an emergence of wine’s current trend: grapes on tap.

Kegged wine is primarily an on-premise growth point, supported by wine-packing companies such as Sonoma, Calif.-based Free Flow Wines.

The company began in 2009, just as canned wine was emerging from producers such as Oregon’s Underwood / Union Wine Co. and the national House Wine. The main environmental benefit is that wine in kegs reduces the need for glass (both in energy and spaces) and that the stainless-steel kegs Free Flow uses have a much longer operational life than glass.

The general math here is that one keg equals 26 bottles; and when stacked up, a user could fit 35 percent more wine in the same space compared to glass. The company completed a lifecycle assessment showing a potential 76 percent reduction in CO2 emissions compared to glass — largely due to the energy savings from steel compared to glass — and decreased energy required for transportation. The wine also tends to stay fresher for longer.

“What’s attractive for more expensive wines is that you can almost completely eliminate any wastage due to oxidation, with typically only 5-8 ounces of annual waste for line cleaning,” Free Flow VP of business development & trade Barclay Webster told Sustainable Brands® (SB).

Free Flow has since grown to work with more than 120 winery partners and kegs more than 225 individual SKUs, including nine labels from Sonoma-area winery Martin Ray under its namesake and Angeline Vineyards brands. The winery has been working with Free Flow for over a decade and is now the company’s fourth-largest partner by volume.

“Them being so close to us is perfect for our supply chain,” says Carson Benham, director of national accounts for the Martin Ray-Angeline-Synthesis wine portfolio.

Free Flow is Martin Ray’s first and only keg partner, and Benham says the partnership has saved them from using more than 1.4 million glass bottles over the duration of their relationship so far.

“Our team saw more and more restaurants adopting wine on tap, and now we’re offering all major varietals on tap,” he adds.

The only challenge Benham noted is that the sanitizing and refilling turnaround of the keg system is a bit longer than traditional glass, so it requires better demand planning.

“It’s not a bad thing — it just takes a bit of extra time and planning on our end,” he says. “It's just a sacrifice for doing something that’s a bit better for the environment.”

Smaller wineries can play ball, as well. Most wineries can purchase an affordable adapter that will link up to their existing hoses, making the kegging process almost seamless. It allows low-volume producers to experiment before switching to higher runs.

The value add for a group such as Martin Ray is Free Flow’s internal business development team, who promotes the virtues of wine on tap to a wider range of on-premise accounts such as hotels and large-volume restaurants.

One of those larger accounts is Sixty Vines — a nine-location (its tenth will open next month) casual eatery chain that focuses on wine on tap. Free Flow is the exclusive supplier of Sixty Vines’ stainless-steel kegs; according to CEO Jeff Carcara, the chain purchased more than 8,000 kegs last year. It’s Free Flow’s largest account group by volume.

“Beyond savings and positive Earth impact, (kegs) also allow us to serve incredible wines at the highest quality and ideal temperature with every glass we pour,” Carcara tells SB.

He adds that the chain has a vision to “reimagine wine culture;” and, conceivably, kegged wine is one way to do that — especially with more partners linking up with companies such as Free Flow.

Webster notes that there still is some stigma around wine not poured from glass; but in the on-premise space, kegged wine improves service times and allows for a longer potential sell-through of a particular wine since it’s not spoiling as fast.

In addition to the Sonoma facility, Free Flow has a smaller building in New Jersey that serves east-coast accounts and kegs some international wines. Webster says overall it can keep the distance most of the kegs will travel to 1,200 miles or under.

Once the kegs are empty, the distributor will pick them up and return them to Free Flow for sanitizing; then, they’ll be put back into service. It ends up being a much less wasteful and more productive reuse cycle compared to glass.

Looking ahead, the ceiling for kegged wine might be limitless, especially considering the loosening of the perception issue. Free Flow already has wines in each Ritz-Carlton in Florida and in almost every AC Hotel (both Marriott brands). More wineries are coming around to the idea of a future where they swap out glass for more stainless steel.

“It’s as close to drinking from the barrel as you’ll find on premise,” Carcara says.

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