Joe Barbera

Aida Bistro Wine Bar in Columbia owner Joe Barbera, pictured at some of the wine taps, hopes that an amendment to a Howard County bill will allow his and other restaurants to sell wine-to-go in refillable bottles similar to growlers for beer. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / February 10, 2012)

Howard County restaurateurs want to let patrons take home beer in growlers. Now, one hopes to offer the same option to the wine-sipping set.

Pouring cabernet from a tap into a bottle might seem a bit odd, but draft wine, as it's called, is gaining popularity around the country. And wine connoisseurs could have a chance to enjoy favorite seasonals or small-batch finds in the same way beer drinkers can — in a refillable container to take home.

"Wine on tap is a new concept. It's quite popular. Quite a few wineries are offering it," said Joe Barbera, owner of Aida Bistro and Wine Bar in Columbia, which has 30 wines on tap, including a range of limited seasonals that aren't available from even well-stocked wine markets.

He has persuaded Howard lawmakers to include wine in a bill before the General Assembly to allow county restaurants to serve draft beers in refillable containers, known as growlers.

"It allows customers who enjoy wine at the restaurants to take them home," Barbera said.

While many bars and restaurants can sell sealed bottles of beer or wine to take home, state laws prohibit restaurants from selling refillable containers because the added step is similar to bottling an alcoholic beverage, which requires a different liquor license. Microbreweries can sell refillable beer growlers in brewpub restaurants, but only 15 establishments have such a license in Maryland.

"There are wines that aren't available in the bottle," and some create a small blend just for the wine bar, Barbera said.

The restaurant's website lists it as the second-largest wine-on-tap establishment in the country, though it began serving wine in this fashion only in recent years.

"We're rather unique right now," Barbera said, but he expects the trend to catch on.

He said he gets calls every day from medium to smaller wineries interested in selling wine casks because it is cheaper and more sustainable than bottling, and it provides wine consumers with fresher-tasting wines.

When buying a glass of wine to pair with a favorite meal, it's not clear to the diner how the wine has been handled or how long it's been open, but wine straight from the cask represents a winery's product more consistently, Barbera said.

A representative for a state wineries trade group has not taken a position on the bill but expressed some skepticism about the idea. When wine is taken to go, it does not have the same shelf life as bottled wine, said Kevin Atticks, executive director for the Maryland Wineries Association. Many wines also improve with age in a sealed bottle, he noted.

"The folks who drink beer want something fresh, but that's not true of wine consumers," Atticks said. "I don't see the benefit for a consumer for a freshly poured bottle of wine" to take home, he said.

"There are wineries in other parts of the country and the Old World — Europe — which allow customers to bring bottles back for resale. For people selling sparkling wine, this could have an advantage," he added.

Barbera said the idea is not strange: "In Europe, people go to machines and fill up their bottles of wine," which is meant to be consumed the same day.

He said his concept is slightly different from beer growlers because he would serve smaller containers — between a liter and a liter and a half — that are meant to be consumed shortly after they are purchased.

In addition to reducing waste, each keg saves the costs associated with 25 bottles, corks and packages, Barbera said.

He said "wineries are looking to reduce costs," especially amid the recession and the glut of wine on the market.

If the bill is approved, Barbera said, he could start filling up bottles to go in July.

He said his prices vary but would be similar to retail prices.

"If you have an opportunity to try it, you'll see it's far superior," he said. "I think you are going to see more and more people wanting that."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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