[caption id="attachment_87709" align="alignnone" width="400"] Free Flow provides wines on tap for Zero Zero in San Francisco.[/caption]
NAPA -- A Napa-based company has greatly expanded its ability to put client vintners' wine in kegs for on-premise consumption and plans further growth this year through outside funding to make it even easier for restaurants, hotels, resorts, stadiums and other venues to pull the handle for these wines.
Automation has tripled production capacity at the 22,000-square-foot south Napa plant Free Flow Wines (415-626-1215, freeflowwines.com) expanded to late last year, according to co-founder Dan Donahoe. At the same time, the company is conducting due diligence on $10 million in equity funding that would allow the company to stock up on 19.5-liter kegs, which cost $100 apiece, as well as eventual regional kegging hubs and up to five additional staff.
"Wine is a very capital-intensive business, and the last thing it wants as an industry is to be owning a keg fleet and the logistics of getting kegs back," Mr. Donahoe said. Free Flow's fleet has expanded from 50 when the company started four years ago to about 50,000 now.
Wine industry trendwatcher Jon Fredrikson at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in January said wine by the glass, and particularly that served by wine in kegs, would be a hot trend for on-premise wine sales this year.
[caption id="attachment_87710" align="alignleft" width="256"] Free Flow Wines uses standard 5.2-gallon beer kegs, which hold as much as 26 bottles of wine.[/caption]
Free Flow leases the kegs and matching wine-safe 304-grade stainless-steel tap fixtures, rather than the 303-grade stainless steel and brass used for beer. Wine reacts with those metals, souring the taste for vino on tap when it was first tried in the 1980s. Free Flow cleans the kegs with the same processes used on winery tanks, fills the kegs with wine and tops them with a nitrogen-based gas mix to prevent oxidation, and arranges to have the kegs shipped to and picked up from trade accounts. The goal is to reduce the transportation weight and storage space needed for bottled wine and lower food costs from spoiled wine between wine orders.
The service cost averages $1 a bottle, depending on volume. The minimum quantity is 250 gallons, enough to fill 48 kegs, but that costs significantly more. Because Free Flow is most efficient when kegs are in motion rather than storage, the company works with clients to provide enough to supply trade accounts for three to six months, so that means kegging three to four times a year.
As it is, the company's 18 employees are able to clean, fill and ship up to 5,500 kegs a month by hand. But a new automated keg-filler allows the same staff to clean and fill up to 25,000 a month, Mr. Donahoe said. The machine was made by beer industry stalwart KHS of Germany and said to be the second one for wine in the world after one in Italy.
In January, 7,500 kegs were filled and shipped, and the goal is to double that throughput by year-end, Mr. Donahoe said.
Free Flow kegged and shipped the equivalent of a little more than 100,000 standard-sized 9-liter cases of wine last year. That's small compared with the millions of cases shipped from California wineries annually to on-premise venues.