Bars and restaurants throughout the country are ditching traditional wine lists for more innovative offerings, like wine walls and wine on tap.
What catches your eye when you first enter the 15,700-square-foot The Matheson in Healdsburg, California? It’s not art, or ornate chandeliers. It’s a wine wall.
Dispensed from self-serve, stainless-steel WineStation machines, 110 wines are available on tap. Of those, 80 percent are from Sonoma County, and 20 percent from Napa Valley or the Old World. Prices for various size pours range from a few dollars to $24 (for a “splash”) of 2017 Opus One Cabernet Blend.
“There’s less of a commitment with the wine wall,” says The Matheson owner Dustin Valette. Since the restaurant’s September 2021 opening, he’s seen customers pop in to check the place out, lured in by the wine wall. “For $5 (a pour), it’s a good gamble.” They’re either so hooked by the atmosphere they stay for dinner, or they book a second reservation, this time to dine.
The wine wall has been so popular The Matheson doesn’t need to traditionally market it other than through social media.
It’s not just wine walls. Any creative, off-beat method for serving wine captures attention. This increase in visitation leads to a spike in wine sales. “Our first year at FirstEnergy Stadium (home to the Cleveland Browns) we increased general-wine concessions by 450 percent,” says Graham + Fisk’s Wine-In-A-Can co-founder Graham Veysey.
Marlow’s Tavern—with locations in Georgia and Florida—began serving Graham + Fisk’s canned Rosé Wine with Bubbles wine in 2019. “It's nice for our guests to be able to count on consistent bubbles, fresh wine that's enjoyable and cold,” says beverage director Rick Blumberg. “We see that guests are more (than) ready to order a second ‘glass’ when it can come out that fast and consistent.” Staff like it, too. “We love the innovation and ability to serve wine with zero waste … and the ease and speed of serving wine in a can,” he says.
That ease was also why Sommelier Gianni Cavicchi of New York City’s One19 Wine Bar + Food didn’t hesitate to introduce wines on tap. In fact, he made that the eatery’s focus when they opened in October. He had already served wines on tap at a previous restaurant, liking the seamlessness of organic frizzante on tap for a bottomless brunch program. “We didn’t have to waste time opening a bottle of Prosecco countless times to make mimosas and bellinis,” he says. “The storage situation, in terms of temperature control, became so much more manageable. We (also) cut down on waste with the countless empty bottles and cardboard that comes with bottled wine.” In the first month, draft wines far out-sold the bottles, says Cavicchi.
“I've noticed a loyalty to the wines on tap,” he says, “meaning that people far more reorder the draft wines than the bottles by the glass.”
Marketing a new way of serving wine has also been a breeze at MPourium in Greenville, N.C. A 52-tap beverage wall—featuring six wines from kegs, along with beers, ciders, seltzers and mead—is frequently showcased on the bar’s Facebook and Instagram pages through posts, reels and stories.
Wine pours sold by the ounce are a very low-commitment model. “You take away the anxieties of somebody wasting a full glass,” says MPourium co-owner Drew Moss. “It’s a risk-free glass. It helps people make the decision, rather than not making one at all. It (also) helps you find your style.”
Similarly, Region in Sebastopol, California—another Sonoma County town—skews from traditional wine service in favor of self-serve taps. A wine wall of only Sonoma County selections is vetted by owner/founder Kerry Thedorf and dispensed by the customer in various size pours. Most wineries are new to the customer.
“We wanted customers to try a wine they’d never find on the shelves at Safeway,” says Thedorf, who takes staff on monthly tasting visits to winery clients to learn their stories. “With wine, you have to have the story and that connection.” Selections are switched out of the machines each quarter. Thedorf plans to open a similar concept in San Luis Obispo, CA in 2022.
Partnering with local wineries lacking tasting rooms or a huge marketing budget is an underlying goal at Region. Wineries take over the adjacent tasting-room space—in a pop-up concept—twice a year for a week at a time. Keeping events small, casual and affordable is key, says Thedorf, with tickets sold through Resy. Examples of wineries’ events include cupcake pairings, oyster and sparkling wine pairings, and pizza and Pinot Noir, with the winemaker in attendance. Because Region does not have a kitchen it partners with local chefs and caterers to provide small bites.
Offering unique wine-sipping experiences invites new customers in. “The only way to taste Kosta Browne (Pinot Noir) is to go to a restaurant and order a bottle and it costs around $400, or you can do a tasting that books two months in advance and it takes an hour and a half and it’s not cheap,” says Valette. But at Matheson it costs much less to try.
Similarly, Kurt and Michelle Rutlin, who opened Double Barrel Bar within the Holiday Lodge Resort in Tomah, Wis., this fall, quickly learned the “tap wall” is a huge draw. It’s powered by I Pour It technology. Customers don a wristband that activates the 24 taps. “Each tap has its own iPad—you tap the wristband and a light lights up at the top of the iPad, telling you it’s ready to pour,” says Michelle. Pour sizes can be adjusted by the Rutlins. Market research also comes in handy. “We track every patron by their sex and age and can see who’s drinking each wine,” says Kurt. This helps them decide what to stock in the machines.
Glitzy allure aside, wine walls enable serving more wines by the glass than a wine list might. That’s because the bottles can last for up to six months. But it’s also about widening choice. “A lot of times, the by-the-glass pours are limited,” says Valette. “You have price-driven, high-performance wine. You can’t have 80 wines by the glass.”