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There's a new trend in wine packaging, and it borrows from its beer brethren. Restaurants have begun keeping wines in kegs, and pouring it out of a tap.

Keeping wine on tap reduces packaging and storage space, saves time opening bottles — some of which might be corked — and allows restaurants to keep a selection of wines by the glass fresher than they tend to stay when they're kept in a bottle on the counter or in a fridge for who knows how many days.

For Steve Rose, chef/owner of the Vineyards Inn Spanish Bar & Grill in Kenwood, it's all that and also about being environmentally conscious.

"I believe in it," he said. "It's my passion to be as green as possible."

Rose recently designed his own tap system to pour 14 different wines, from whites and ros? that are kept in the restaurant's walk-in refrigerator to a selection of reds kept at room temperature. Each keg holds 1.5 gallons, depending on pour size (the average is 5 ounces) or about 130 glasses worth of wine.

Nitrogen is used to keep the wines fresh and once the kegs are empty, they're returned to their respective wineries to be cleaned and re-used.

"When I first lived in Kenwood, back in 1973, I could get a gallon of wine in a jug from Valley of the Moon and several other places around," said Jay Gamel, a regular customer at the Vineyards Inn. "We lost that simple touch along the way. I haven't been able to tell any difference between the bottle and the keg wines. It saves money. I also drink less."

Rose works with neighbor Kaz Vineyard & Winery of Kenwood to keg a proprietary syrah from grapes grown on Rose's own vineyard, and offers an Au Bon Climat chardonnay, Tablas Creek Rhone blend as well as wines provided by Silvertap Winery in Sonoma.

Founded by two Sonoma County winemakers, Dan Donahoe of Teira Wines and Jordan Kivelstadt of Qualia Wines, and a restaurateur (Todd Rushing of Atlanta-based Concentrics Restaurants), Silvertap only makes wines for kegs. Through a sister company called Free Flow Wines, it offers wineries in the area use of their mobile kegging line so they too can offer wines on tap.

"What I learned through trial and error is putting wine in a keg is totally different than in a bottle," Donahoe explained. "You have to clean the keg really, really well or microbes will spoil the wine and make it re-ferment. We figured out a system so that fine wine — this is not Central Valley bulk wine — fine wine in a keg is dispensed safely every time."

That system is a partnership with a worldwide expert in draft systems, MicroMatic, what he calls "the biggest company you've never heard of" in the restaurant business.

Working with winemaker Bill Knuttel, who has made wine for Saintsbury, Chalk Hill and Dry Creek Vineyard, Silvertap offers eight different wines on tap, all from grapes grown in Sonoma County, from sauvignon blanc to zinfandel.

Donahoe says Silvertap is on track to sell the equivalent of over 10,000 cases of wine in keg this year while Free Flow Wines now has more than 50 custom kegging clients — from Paul Hobbs, Saintsbury and Lioco to the Mendocino Wine Company and Beringer, which will soon release a Knights Valley cabernet sauvignon in kegs.

Packaging costs range from $2 to $3 per bottle for most wineries, from the glass itself to the cork or screwcap closure to the label. Those costs go away with a keg, while other costs have to be factored in.

"I still have to get the wine into the keg, pay for the keg itself and for transportation costs to get the keg back to the winery to get it cleaned, refilled and sent back into circulation," Donahoe said. "The ultimate savings end up being 20-25 percent, or $1 to $1.50 a bottle."

At Brassica Mediterranean Kitchen & Wine Bar, chef Cindy Pawlcyn's new St. Helena spot, the forward-thinking wine list includes a section for wines on tap, describing the choices as "Direct from the cask .<TH>.<TH>. the way wine was originally served and the newest way to keep wine at its freshest."

Pawlcyn, a leader of the Seafood Watch sustainable seafood program, added, "I like the environmental aspect of it."

Brassica is working with Napa Valley winemaker Jim Neal of N2 Wines, who can do the kegging for local wineries. Brassica managing partner Sean Knight says because Neal is a winemaker, he has been able to convince once-reluctant fellow winemakers to keg their wine.

"They trust a winemaker with their wines," Knight said.

Brassica's options on tap include a Staglin chardonnay, Cliff Lede sauvignon blanc and tempranillo from Lake County's Six Sigma.

"Kegs really are the most sustainable option as they're re-used and less wine is wasted," said winemaker Matt Hughes of Six Sigma. "From a winemaker's perspective, kegging wines has its own set of logistics. The wine needs to be ready to drink at the time it goes into kegs, as aging is not going to take place. One of the great advantages to kegs is that your wine is constantly protected. But that means you can't toss big reds right away and think they'll show well."

Distribution logistics, upfront costs and the need for standardized fittings and systems will hold back the growth of keg wines for a while, says Hughes.

"Once these get solved," he said, "kegs should just blow up the wine-by-the-glass world."

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County.<QA0>

She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com.