Bottles with diverse labels and cork closures differentiate wine from all other beverages. At the same time, the individual packaging is cumbersome when selling the product. The handling causes work, and what remains in the bottles has a very limited shelf life. Here, dispensing systems are a useful addition. Up to now, they only made real sense in the gastronomy. New developments could change that.
History has the ingredients, so that even wine sometimes makes the headlines: An old castle, hidden treasure, dark Nazi sympathisers, who were engaging in unfathomable machinations way beyond 1945, and some secret service dealings.
One thing after the other. The Czech state authorities resented the role of the Beaufort-Spontini’s during the national socialist occupation. The family left the country just like that. Their castle Bečov remained. Decades later, they wanted to buy back the property via intermediaries. Money hardly seemed to play a role, whereupon the Czech secret police looked at the property more carefully. A wine cellar appeared, which had remained untouched since the family’s escape.
At some point, the question was raised of the value of the collection. The bottles bore labels with names like Corton Charlemagne and Château d’Yquem, which usually bring a big smile to the lips of any auctioneer, especially when it has to do with wines from the 19th century. The market value was over a million euros, provided that the bottles were well preserved.
Finally, they used a wine closure system, which could take samples from closed bottles with the help of a fine injection needle. High ranking experts were called upon. The result: The strict jury was impressed. The job was indeed the best PR that you could wish for, for the Coravin system. Wine closure systems do not have an easy job, as storing wine was always a problem. For centuries, people coped with impractical amphorae. Barrels offered a certain advantage, even if loading them was not exactly enjoyable. However, leak-tightness remained a problem.
Oxidation converts most wines into organic waste after a few days. It is indeed also used stylistically, as with Sherry, but mostly simply accepted. This is still partially true even today. Traditional Quevri in Georgia, which is popular with lovers of Orange Wine, is actually exactly that. 2,000 liters of wine in an underground tank, which is penetrated by more air with every bottle filled.
There, bottles were already progress: Suitable, tightly corked containers for the end consumer. The bark of the cork oak has outstanding characteristics. However, the packaging remains a problem. 0.75 liter is definitely a usual household quantity, just not suitable for every occasion. For one to two people it quickly becomes too much, and this is certainly true for a short stop in the bistro.
The competition offers the right packaging for every occasion, from the Sunkist bag to the Schnapps miniature. Especially beer is available from a small bottle to a barrel, practically in unlimited units. We know 0.2-liter wine bottles from the minibar, but just like half bottles, they have gained little momentum in trade. Probably because they are lacking the high quality appearance.
Providers have dealt with the problem in different ways. Air can be sucked out of the bottle by hand or with an electromotor. However, in order to remove enough oxygen, you need strong pumps and bottles that are designed for vacuum. The effect of the rather simple system is limited. In gastronomy, dispensing systems are commonplace. Alongside beer and cola from the tap, wine is a traditionally difficult product there. In contrast to the weekly orders of drinks on tap, stored wine in the cellar ties up capital. The pulling of corks and serving causes work and costs in ongoing operation.
By no means every customer orders a bottle. Even in better restaurants, a great deal is done with open serving. With every opened bottle that stands longer than overnight, the proprietor risks the wine oxidising and becoming unsaleable. Even worse: The spoiled wine continues to be served. That can put off a pleasure-loving regular customer. With each open wine on the menu, this risk increases progressively. Many restaurant owners sharpen their pencils for the calculation.
Common dispensing systems in the restaurant trade are set up for carbonated beverages, which are pumped with gas from aluminum reusable barrels, with special connections for pressure lines, so-called kegs. Wine is rarely available in such containers. The technology is also not ideal. Carbon dioxide as a propellant can only be pumped at low pressure, as the gas dissolves into the liquid, and otherwise the red wine would become a sparkling wine.
The alternative – nitrogen – on the other hand, can suppress the carbon dioxide contained in white wine, which makes the wine seem bland and discoloured. Bonded nitrogen sometimes triggers headaches. A barrel standing for too long is sufficient to do this. Hardly any suppliers recommend more than one week, even though time spans of up to 21 days are advertised.
Most systems use a combination of gases, to combine the advantages of both – or the disadvantages according to interpretation. Some manufacturers combine the advantages of open serving with electronic control systems. Precise serving to the millimeter and computer-precise calculation, upon request networking in a larger till system, should not be scoffed at in the restaurant trade.
The bottles stand in individual, cooled compartments, so that you can assign each wine its optimum temperature. Large systems mix a consistently good spritzer or Hugo at the push of a button. “Even the temporary worker only needs to press the Cabernet button, and they have the right one in the glass,“ enthuses Günther Gruber. The electronics of the Gruber dispensing system record the turnover for the revenue office.
However, the investments in the four-digit range make more sense for large restaurants and specialised operations. The latter could fall back on systems, for example, which not only dispense by the glass, but even dispense a test sip – to be billed to your credit card.
Design and lighting achieve good effects. Sometimes there is even self service, which further reduces the anxieties of the guests.
Until now in the private sector, it has almost only been bag-in-box fillings that made larger quantities available in portions. Initial difficulties with the material technology have also been resolved. Hoses with three or five-liter content work perfectly and particularly lend themselves to parties. However, the visual appearance is limited for a wine lover. Which is also reflected in the fact that the containers are almost exclusively used for simple wines.
On the growing market for gadgets, more and more products are appearing that promise to reseal wine and make it long-lasting. The spectrum ranges from the wine condom, which consists of nothing more than a liquid-tight plastic cover, up to Repour. The seal apparently “absorbs” the oxygen content of the air, in a way that has not yet been fully explained.
Kuvée made a stylish suggestion in this direction. The Boston company offers a canister system, initially for the American market. As on the wine menu of a restaurant, you can keep a number of wines available in it. A networkable touchscreen label not only gives information about the wine contained within, you can also call up further information about the winegrower, the current temperature or food pairings, or you put your own assessment on the Internet straight away. A whole range of apps have already tried to achieve this type of knowledge creation via liquid knowledge. None have prevailed on a broad level.
The Kuvée customers dispense wine by the glass, from special aluminum containers. It is preserved via a “patented valve system” and a special coating. The underlying technology remains somewhat nebulous. The reference to up to thirty days’ shelf life once again suggests the use of nitrogen.
In addition, the wines must be poured into the canisters by the winegrower, which significantly limits the selection. US$199 for the basic equipment with four chambers will also be a further obstacle. Company founder Vijay Manwani amassed six million dollars of risk capital, which in light of the fact that the preservation technique is neither new nor optimal, places the emphasis on the risk.
Regardless of the technique, credibility with the customer is the biggest hurdle. Kuvée quotes the Californian wine growing legend Randall Grahm from Bonny Doon. The manufacturer enomatic is one of the giants on the market, who have 28 million glasses per year flowing through their lines, according to company details. The Tuscan company had its patented gastro solutions technically certified by the prestigious Consorzio Chianti Classico. Over 28 days opened, “no significant changes” were found, for basic parameters such as volatile acidity and polyphenol index. After sensory tests, according to the manufacturer’s information, even the US Sommelier Association confirmed “the efficacy of the technology.”
Greg Lambrecht worked in medical research. The graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed injection needles for use in spinal surgery, where it was important to injure the least amount of tissue possible.
When he was once again annoyed in his well-deserved leisure time that he could only try one wine at a time, of which the rest then also had to remain in the bottle, it occurred to him that corks had similar characteristics to human tissue. The idea for Coravin was born, according to company legend.
The learned nuclear physicist combined the injection system with the gas argon, which is completely reaction-free, and until now it has only been used by a few suppliers. “It took a while before we got the substance to the necessary purity,“ says Lambrecht remembering 23 attempts. What emerged is a bottle adapter, which pumps the gas into the bottle through a Teflon-coated needle. With the resulting excess pressure, the wine is pumped out in portions. “Without opening the bottle,” says Lambrecht, “the rest remains completely unchanged by the argon for an unlimited time.” The cork closes the hole from the injection needle itself, due to its material characteristics. Like this, even the bottles from Castle Bečov remained saleable.
The technology provides previously unknown perspectives. Wine bars can offer top wines by the glass, without a risk to the rest of the bottle. The collector, who is always asking himself how mature one or other of the wines in his cellar is, can dispense a test sip at any time. “Over years if you want”, says Lambrecht.
Once again, persuasion was the biggest task in marketing. “We started at the top,“ explains Lambrecht, who travelled around the world for the first few years. Again and again, he presented sommeliers, traders, importers, and journalists in top restaurants bottles opened months before that were half full of gas with Coravin, compared to those that had only just been uncorked. Hardly any participants could tell the samples apart in blindfold tests.
The handling was a little laborious at first. Red wines flowed into the glass slowly and cloudy. Revised models dispense more quickly. Most voices that are widely listened to, such as Robert Parker or Jancis Robinson, also gave their blessing. However, the device remains powerless against alternative closures for the moment, and also for sparkling wine. “We are working on this full steam ahead,” promises Lambrecht.
A gas cartridge, which is sufficient for around three bottles, costs around €10, plus €200 to €300 for the device including a neoprene case, which should provide protection against the somewhat unlikely case of the bottle exploding, and the easier to imagine claims for damages in the USA.
Manfred Jüni recognized the downwards price margin, when he discovered argon atmospheres as an engineer in the packaging industry for food preservation. Under the promising name Zzysh, the 32-year-old developed a stylish closure, which works without an injection needle. Open bottles are simply quickly gassed, before you put the rest in the refrigerator. Here too, the argon layer prevents oxidation. At the price of €90 there is even an alternative for Champagne. The device pumps a pressure of around four bar into the bottle, which is firmly sealed with an accompanying stopper. However, as a rule, the carbon dioxide pressure of sparkling wine is higher, and the gas is a mixture of argon and nitrogen, and so the system is not quite so reliable. However, “from Prosecco drinkers in their twenties to mature wine drinkers, we cover a wide field in this way,” says Jüni of his business idea.
For simple drinking wines, however, it is still cheaper to dispose of the rest. So, the breakthrough on a wide front is less of a question of function.