Photo: Steve Thorp and Mike Macquisten with the FreshTAP kegs
Until now, Vancouver’s strong wine culture has had
everything but an actual winery.
Steve Thorp and Mike Macquisten have closed
the loop by opening Vancouver Urban Winery in Railtown, the trendy new
commercial district just east of Main
Street, bordering the Port of Vancouver.
Here, heritage industrial buildings are
getting a new life as headquarters for social media companies, coffee
distributors and fashion retailers like Aritzia. Vancouver Urban Winery is in a
splendid high-ceilinged structure that was built in the 1920s for metal
fabrication. It has been turned into a winery with the addition of stainless
steel tanks, racks of barrels and, crucially, a long bar with 20 taps for
That is what Vancouver Urban Winery is
adding to the city’s wine culture: through a subsidiary called FreshTAP, it has
begun providing wine by the keg to restaurants
that have installed wine taps. This promises to revolutionize the way
restaurants offer wines by the glass.
This is already a hot trend in the United States.
An article last summer in Seattle Magazine listing restaurants with wines on
tap commented that “the concept isn’t new [but] modern technology makes serving
wines on tap a game changer.”
The reason: the system for wine by the keg
means wines sold by the glass should always be fresh, which is not always the
case when half empty bottles sit around overnight. Secondly, the shipping
economy inherent with keg wines makes it possible for restaurateurs to pass
along some savings to consumers.
Steve and Mike are friends who partnered
several years ago to set up their own marketing company and then went looking
for business ideas. Steve previously operated a sports equipment sales company.
Mike previously worked with the Earls
Restaurant group before
moving into beverage alcohol sales with Molsons and then with Corby Distillers
There are two other investors in Vancouver
Urban Winery: restaurateur Wayne Holm, a member of the B.C. Restaurant Hall of
Fame, and Rueben Major, a chef who is director of culinary development for
“It was actually Reuben Major who brought
the original concept to us,” Steve says. “He was in New York and stumbled on it there.”
Subsequently, he found wine on tap was developing in other cities there as
“We spent about four months in deep
research mode,” Steve says. “We travelled the U.S. and met with the four largest
keg packaging companies there. After
four months we put together the entire concept for what is now FreshTAP, the
keg side of our business.”
The key to making it happen in the British Columbia
regulatory environment was to establish Vancouver Urban Winery as a
commercially-licensed winery. They had less trouble selling the idea to Victoria’s regulators than they had selling it to the
city of Vancouver.
Here, there had never been a winery and
therefore, no zoning for one. The city turned down the first two buildings in
which Steve and Mike wanted to install the winery. Then they found the former
metal working building at 55
Dunleavy Avenue. There were no zoning impediments
and the space works as a winery, with a tasting room. The partners plan to open
Vancouver Urban Winery to the public by the end of May. They also plan to make
some wine there this fall and to launch a proprietary wine brand.
However, this is primarily a vehicle for
FreshTAP. Wineries that want to offer wine on tap deliver it in bulk to
Vancouver Urban Winery. Here, the wine is stored under nitrogen until it is transferred
into 19.5 litre stainless steel kegs. These kegs are pressurized with nitrogen
until filled with wine. At the restaurants, the kegs fit into a system where
more nitrogen protects the wines from air as it is drawn off by the glass. It
is similar to the way beer on tap stays fresh.
The Edible Canada Bistro on Granville Island was the first restaurant to
install the FreshTAP system, offering Nichol Vineyards’s Pinot Gris and Nine
Mile Red on tap. The restaurant trumpets the advantages on the system on its
website. One of them: “Reducing the bottling costs allows the winery to pass on
savings directly to restaurants and through to the consumer.”
Other wineries that have come on board so
far include Blasted Church, Desert Hills, Okanagan Crush Pad and King
Estate from Oregon.
Mike and Steve are negotiating with others interested in getting wines on tap
in restaurants. (Not all wineries are buying in: one Okanagan winery owner told
me that they will not allow their wines to be repackaged by third parties.)
Other restaurants are also coming on board.
For example, The Mill Marine Bistro in Coal Harbour
is installing eight wine taps. “We want to work with trend setting restaurants,”
Mike says. “It is a matter from day one of making sure that we are working with
the right partners that are behind wine on tap, and know the benefits of it.”
Because Vancouver Urban Winery has a large
public area, it also makes the facility available for wineries showing their
products to the trade. Last week, Okanagan Crush Pad debuted some of its recent
vintages including a new three-litre bag in the box package for three of its
Haywire brand wines.
That package is another means for shaving
the cost of wine to the consumer. A box of wine, equal to four bottles, sells
for $54 (the rosé is $2 less), which works out to $13.50 a bottle. The
briefcase-sized boxes slip easily into the refrigerator or on the counter. You
can draw off a glass of wine whenever you feel like and the wine stays fresh
for a reasonable period.