Nitrogen-filled globes set to revolutionize access to fine wine
By Loz Blain
June 23, 2009
All wine tastes better once it's aged, right? Wrong. In fact, wine experts say around 90% of wines are released by the winemaker tasting as good as they're ever going to get - and after 6 months of sitting in a bottle, most are deteriorating noticeably. Now, that's a great excuse to fling open your cellar doors, warm up your corkscrew and start drinking - but it's also the key idea behind a new wine storage and dispensing system called N2Wine that could start a revolution in the wine service industry. By keeping each wine completely isolated from oxygen, and at its perfect serving temperature, these racks of "wine globes" allow restaurants to serve a broad selection of their best wines by the glass, confident that even after months or years, every drop will be as fresh as it was the moment the bottle was opened. But will the market accept such a radical departure from the traditional romance of a fine bottle, opened and poured at the table?
The global wine industry - managing a difficult product
A wine with dinner; it's all but mandatory in parts of Europe - and even the Chinese and American palates are shifting away from beer towards the complexity of wine. By 2010, global wine consumption is forecast to hit a staggering 26.2 billion liters - around 4 liters for every person on the planet; that's a lot of plonk.
But as a commodity, wine is a tough one to manage. Its production is an imprecise and organic process that leads to inconsistency between batches - albeit an inconsistency that connoisseurs appreciate as part of the magic. Individual bottles of the same batch can end up tasting different due to ageing and storage conditions, or go off completely if there's an issue with the bottle, the bottling conditions, or the cork.
Furthermore, wine is difficult to sell in individual serves - beer kegs can be tapped, soft drink can be postmixed, spirits can easily be metered out in shots. But a bottle of fine wine, once it's opened, needs to be consumed within a relatively short window of time - so consumers have to either stump up and drink a whole bottle, or settle for "house wines" that are sold by the glass and often of a lower quality than the best of the bottled wines on the shelf.
And while there's an undeniable old-world romance to the act of having a bottle uncorked for you at a table, and taking a small taste before the waiter to make sure it hasn't gone off, it must still act as a barrier to sales - particularly in emerging markets like the USA where customers are less likely to change their drinking habits to suit the foibles of an old-world product.
But can such a traditional industry get its head around a new delivery technology that kills a bit of the romance in order to deliver a much more reliable and accessible product?
Bleu - pioneering a different approach
If the Bleu Restaurant and Wine Bar in Colombia, Missouri is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes. Owners Travis Tucker and Tina Patel have invested in a high-tech wine storage and dispensing system that lets them serve a large and impressive range of wines by the glass - each at its perfect temperature, and every drop as fresh and lively as the day it came out of the bottle.
What's more, the racks of "wine globes" lining the walls have become an attractive feature and a talking point for customers - who are also delighted to be able to drink top-shelf "reserve quality" wines by the glass, without the heavy spend a bottle might entail.
The N2Wine system
Bleu's wine dispensing system, built by Don Lineback at N2Wine, features 19 large globes, each around 14 inches in diameter, mounted on the wall in an attractive rack. Each globe holds around 33 standard bottles of wine. The globes use an electronic water-cooling system to keep each wine at its optimal temperature, and they're topped up with food-grade Nitrogen as they empty to make sure the wine inside isn't exposed to air and its oxidizing effects.
Where there's a bit of carbon dioxide in the bottle, there's the risk of it expanding and shattering the glass - so Lineback has fitted each globe with a small expanding gas bladder to relieve any pressure.
The system might look large sitting on the wall - but it holds 627 bottles' worth of wine at peak capacity - just imagine the cellaring space that frees up.
It's a common misconception that all wine should be cellared and aged before drinking. In reality, around 90% of today's wines are released from the vineyard tasting as good as they're likely to get - and leaving them in the bottle for more than six months, slowly interacting with the small amount of oxygen left after corking, is often actually detrimental to the flavor.
Don Lineback is a fervent believer that if you "give any wine long enough, the bottle becomes its coffin. As a winemaker myself, I don't buy wines that are more than a year old." He's spent a lot of time researching the effects of oxygen on wine in the bottle - which explains why the N2Wine system is so focused on removing all oxygen from contact with the wine. Kept away from oxygen, and at the ideal temperature, Don and Travis believe the wine should stay fresh indefinitely.
Not that they're likely to be able to test the theory at Bleu; the restaurant's wine sales have gone through the roof and the globes have drained quickly since the addition of the system, partly through its novelty but mostly through the flexibility of being able to offer customers such a wide range of quality wines by the glass and with no chance of the bottle being a bad one.
Breaking into a tough market
According to Travis and Don - and many Bleu customers, the N2Wine system is a winner. But Lineback says he's encountered solid resistance from many restaurant and hotel owners who feel that their customers enjoy the traditional theater of having a bottle opened at the table.
Bleu's experience has been the opposite - Lineback says that while Travis still offers bottled wine to his customers, the vast majority prefer to order from the wine globes. The initial investment might be reasonably significant - in the range of USD$20,000 for a system that handles 168 bottles' worth of 24 varieties of wine - but the effect has been to expose a large number of customers to a wide variety of fine wines at an affordable price. And that kind of education turns casual customers into wine buffs that keep coming back.
To help the system get started in the market, Lineback is also producing smaller, cheaper installations that store and serve fewer wines and smaller quantities.
Many of us here at Gizmag are wine lovers - and very familiar with the romance of corkscrews and dusty bottles, but we also know a good idea and a better way of doing things when we see one. Screw-top caps on wine bottles, for example, might destroy a bit of the mystique of the cork and corkscrew - and they met with initial distaste from consumers and winemakers alike, but they have proven themselves so far superior to the inconsistencies of cork that they've quickly taken over as the norm.
Here's hoping that, like screw-top caps, the N2Wine system finds some traction in the market and moves toward a tipping point where customers come to expect and demand fresh, high quality wine - served by the glass at the perfect temperature and at the perfect point of aging, as determined by the winemaker.
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