Just north of San Francisco, a dedicated band of engaging entrepreneurs is quietly driving what many think is one of the hottest, most consumer-friendly trends currently lighting up the world of wine – wine on tap. Row upon row of sleek, silver kegs waiting to be filled with premium wines crowd the staging area at the Free Flow Wines production facility in Sonoma county. Once processed, these kegs will be shipped to numerous markets to be served tap style from an ever burgeoning list of on-premise establishments across North America!
Dan Donahoe along with his partner Jordan Kivelstadt, have quickly jumped to the forefront of a movement that seems to suit the lifestyle of the new powerhouse wine consumer – the Millennial. I recently had a chat with Dan about his journey in the industry and the goals of his new venture, Free Flow Wines.
(This is the second of a two-part feature)
SlaveToTheGrape: Where did you first start producing wine in keg and who was your first customer?
Free Flow Wines: Shortly after returning from that trip to Atlanta, my good friend and fellow winegrower / winemaker Jordan Kivelstadt approached me, having just returned from a winemaking stint in Argentina. He said “DUDE! Wine on tap is the future of wine by the glass!” I retorted: “DUDE! You are so right!” With that as a business plan, we purchased 75 used beer kegs and put my estate Sauvignon Blanc into those kegs at Copain’s custom crush facility in Santa Rosa. We brought them back to my garage in the Haight Ashbury, and sold them out of the back of my truck to our first customer: Charles Phan’s newly opened Out the Door restaurant on Bush Street. Guy Valkenkamp, their wine director at the time, had the vision to open the restaurant with 12 wine taps and we were the first wine to flow on tap at opening. The rest is history.
STTG: How long did it take you to outgrow your garage, where did you relocate to and what were some of the hurdles for scaling the operation to where it is now?
FFW: We quickly sold through those initial 75 kegs, and had to fill them up again. Soon it seemed that every new restaurant in San Francisco was opening with both beer – and wine – taps. We reached out to a few fine wine distributors that we know from friends in the business to see if they’d be interested in distributing our kegs, given that our hand delivery from my garage model was not exactly scalable. In early 2010, a distributor in Northern California agreed to sell and distribute the kegs if we agreed to do all of the legwork selling and evangelizing the concept. One of the biggest hurdles we faced in scaling the operation was training the sales team of this distributor on why – and how – wine on tap is a better wine by the glass at a restaurant. Similarly, we had to train the distributor’s draft beer team on the right parts necessary to successfully dispense wine on tap; parts entirely different than beer parts. From a facility perspective, we quickly outgrew Copain Custom Crush and moved into a dedicated kegging space in Sonoma where we could store wine in bulk and keg on demand.
STTG: Does this process change the nature of the wine in any way? Can you walk us through it?
FFW: It does not. Wine is still crushed, fermented and aged in exactly the same way it is prior to bottling. The primary difference is that before it is kegged, the wine is dosed with lower SO2 levels.
STTG: As of now you have not done any marketing and yet you have more and more producers approaching you to package their wine in this format. Why the keen interest?
FFW: I believe that the incredible momentum and interest generated has been driven by consumers who enjoy – and demand – a fresher glass of wine, every time. This, coupled with the fact that winemakers love that their wines will arrive at the table exactly as they crafted and intended at the winery, has created the perfect storm. This movement began in the Chef-Owned, Chef-Driven trendsetting restaurant. As the movement has taken hold with both wine lovers and on-premise operators alike, the national accounts have taken notice. Now, we see wine on tap in casinos, sports & entertainment venues, large premium restaurant chains and others that see wine on tap for what it is: a better glass of wine for the customer, with no waste, no spoilage and no bottle trash. It’s green!
STTG: Where do you see wine sold in this packaging going and do you think, given the growing millennial and x-gen segment of the wine consuming public that this type of wine-delivery platform and possibly others to come signals a fundamental shift in the way wine will be sold and consumed in the future?
FFW: See above. Free Flow saved over 350,000 bottles from landfills around the US in 2012 alone. We will double this amount in 2013. At 1.5-lbs per empty bottle, you do the math. Millennials care about wine quality, price and very much the green aspect of a product.
STTG: Finally, with FreeFlow wines you are making a strong statement about new trends in the industry. If you had to sum up the company’s vision in a few words, what would you say?
FFW: Wine on Tap: a better glass of wine, every time.
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!