Wine on tap

What happens when a wine educator opens a bar? He introduces an entire city to new wines, as Jeff Siegel discovers.

Wine on tap
Wine on tap

The last thing Bryan Burkey had in mind was starting a cutting-edge wine bar that would evolve into a mini-empire which includes a wine school and a wine retailer. He just wanted to please his wife, the actress Leslie Castay, who wished to return to her native New Orleans from New York City, where Burkey was a wine educator.

Nevertheless, that’s what happened. 

The Wine Institute

Today, WINO — the Wine Institute of New Orleans — is an established part of the city, and its innovative self-service wine bar has remained popular with both tourists and residents for more than a decade.

“The best thing about WINO is that it has all the wine and liquor you are looking for, that you went there for, but it also has group of wines and flavours you've never heard of,” says New Orleanian Josh Mayer, who has been a customer since the bar opened. “So you can go there and get something that you know, but you also get turned on to something you don’t know. And every wine lover loves that.”

WINO’s self-service wine bar has 120 still wines and 18 sparkling wines, all on tap. The machines that dispense the wines were a novelty when Burkey had them put in, only the third installation in the USA at the time. Today, even though they’re more common, “many people have never seem them work,” he says. “And it’s still exciting for them to see. There’s still a ‘wow’ factor.”

Each customer gets a tasting card when they enter the bar. Customers can insert the cards into the slot at each tap, and pick one of three sizes — a 1oz, 2oz, or 4oz pour (one ounce is 28.3ml) — and the tasting card acts as the customer’s tab. When a customer inserts the tasting card into the slot at any of the taps, a display shows how much the customer owes. When it’s time to pay, the customer gives the card to an employee, who will ring up the charge.

Each pour is priced differently, based on the retail price of the wine and the size of the serving. Prices start at $1.00 per ounce (29.5ml), working up to more than $20.00 per ounce. For example, one of the most expensive wines is Continuum, the high-end Napa red blend, at $22.00 an ounce. On the other hand, the Jean-Luc Colombo Côtes du Rhône red, a much simpler wine, is just $1.50 an ounce. The Château Aney red from the Haut-Medoc is $3.00 an ounce, which is the most common price.

Educating through enjoyment

That variety is one of WINO’s drawing cards. The tap system makes it possible to offer more wines than a typical wine war, as well as more expensive wines such as the Continuum, since waste is much reduced. And it showcases Burkey’s approach to wine.

“Honestly, Bryan is one of the most knowledgeable and helpful wine people I know, and I know a lot of them, “ says Mayer. “He has wonderful recall not only of specific wines and varietals, but also what I like and why I like it, so he can always introduce me to a new wine that I can love — a rare talent indeed. And he is unpompous, if that is even a word.”

Those are just a couple of ways that the system works much differently from a traditional wine bar works.

“The customers don’t stay as long as they would in a normal wine bar,” says Burkey. “So turnover is higher. But they also don’t have worry about customer service, waiting to be served. If it’s a big party, like 25 people, they don’t have to wait for someone to come to their table to take their order. They can just walk to the taps and get what they want in a matter of seconds. This makes them pretty happy.”

The other thing that pleases the customers? There isn’t any pressure, says Burkey. They can drink whatever they want to drink without feeling they should drink one particular wine or not drink another. They can explore regions and varietals from across the world. This, in the score-driven and status-conscious US wine world, is quite different.

And, for the past decade, it has worked. That success has led to the wine classes and wine retail shop; the latter developed as an offshoot of the former because it seemed like the next step. The classes include WSET and Wine Scholar Guild training, as well as more basic consumer classes. Usually, classes are held about once a week. So Burkey remains a wine educator – and his wife gets to be in New Orleans. Everybody has done well.

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