By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun
6:01 PM EST, February 28, 2013
Among the stainless-steel wine kegs in a chilled back room at Aida Bistro Wine Bar in Columbia, owner Joe Barbera shows off a prototype for a possible new venture: a slender dark bottle with a stopper that he likes to call the "growlier."
The term "growler" is taken by beer drinkers, of course, and that doesn't fit Barbera's niche. He hopes the growlier (it sort of rhymes with "sommelier"), which is designed for wine, will be the next big thing in the refillable container market.
Beer drinkers can legally take their empty jugs to a few spots in Howard County and fill up with brew, but wine drinkers cannot. That could change soon, as legislation before the General Assembly, and sponsored by the Howard County delegation, would extend a law adopted last year for refillable beer to wine, a step Barbera wants the county to take. (The story goes that the stoppered or screw-cap beer containers got their name for the "growling" sound they made sliding down the bar, back when going to the local tavern for a refill was common practice.)
This year, the wine bill is one of five county delegation bills dealing with alcohol — all in the direction of extending alcohol sales options. The bill allowing refillable container sales for any store or restaurant licensed to sell wine would make Howard the first Maryland jurisdiction to do it, and the possibility has stirred eager anticipation from some wine merchants and drinkers.
"Customers come in here, they taste it, they like, they want to take it home," said Barbera, whose restaurant specializes in selling wine on tap, which makes it part of a small number of businesses in this area to do so. As far as he knows, he has the biggest selection in the state with 30 taps, second only in the country to an establishment in Atlanta that has 42.
The practice of selling wine in refillable bottles is more common in Europe, but Barbera said he's getting inquiries from customers, especially for certain wines that are only available on tap. Last week, for instance, of the 30 wines on tap, only 10 are available in conventional bottles, although that number varies depending on the wine selection and time of year.
"A lot of people ask if they can buy a bottle," he said, adding that he's licensed to sell bottles to take out to restaurant customers. But there's no way to legally sell wine to travel if it's only available on tap.
On a Wednesday evening at Aida, a few customers eating and sipping at the bar said they like the idea.
"If you tasted it out of the tap and it's right there, then why not?" asked Jess Berens, who was drinking a sauvignon blanc. "If I fell in love with a glass that I tasted, I would do it."
Her father, Jim Berens of Clarksville, who was sipping a blend of merlot and sangiovese, said the choice would be a question of "do you really like that wine and is it available in any other location?"
Sam Audia, a wine salesman and certified sommelier who was having dinner at the other end of the bar with his wife, Dawn, said he can see how the new law could boost business for a place like this.
"It's an impulse buy," said Audia, who lives in Columbia.
"You go out to dinner, you have that perfect bottle of wine and you want to take it home with you," said Dawn.
The 16 reds and 14 whites now on tap at Aida are kept in a room behind the bar in 5-gallon stainless-steel kegs, each sealed after getting a quick shot of nitrogen and carbon dioxide to banish oxygen, which can spoil the wine over time. The room is chilled to 58 degrees, the serving temperature of the reds, and the whites are run through a chiller before they're served, bringing them down to 50 degrees.
Aida sells some wine from standard bottles, but he said three-quarters of wine sales are from the tap. He proudly held up what he hopes will become known as the "growlier," a 550-milliliter bottle containing about two or three glasses, depending on the generosity of the pour.
Barbera was in Annapolis this week testifying before the House Economic Matters Committee on the refillable container bill, which along with the four other alcohol-related bills was endorsed unanimously by the 11-member county delegation. Barbera said he asked the delegation co-chairman, Del. Guy Guzzone, a District 13 Democrat, to introduce the bill. Barbera was the only witness on Monday afternoon, spoke for only a few minutes, answered a few questions and heard no opposition.
Guzzone said he's "hopeful" the bill will be adopted but said legislators are still trying to adjust to the idea of people buying wine this way. The practice was included in the beer growler legislation that passed last year but was later taken out, he said.
"It's a fairly new concept," he said. "I think there's more uncertainty than opposition. … They're just trying to wrap their heads around it."
Adam Borden, president of Marylanders for Better Beer & Wine Laws, said legislators have learned more about beer and wine in the last few years and have been "hearing more from constituents where, historically, the industry ruled the roost."
Six restaurants and liquor stores in Howard have permits to sell beer in refillable containers, and five of those have started doing so. Most say it's been a success, but there's mixed opinion on whether they would want to sell wine this way.
Viren Patel, who said he has been doing very well with beer growler sales at I.M. Wine in Fulton, said he'd like to try wine as well.
"That would be fantastic," said Patel, who estimates he's done between 160 and 200 beer fill-ups in about a month. At the moment he's offering six beers from kegs, including a Dogfish Head Imperial IPA named Hellhound On My Ale, perhaps for the 10-percent alcohol content. The refillable market is not for the Miller Lite crowd.
Jason Gotcher, manager of the Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia, said his restaurant has been happy with the refillable beer business, but because it already allows customers to buy bottles of wine to go, he's not sure it would go for offering refillable wine containers.
Dave Carney, owner of The Wine Bin in Ellicott City, said he's happy with the refillable container business for beer, as he's already sold nearly 250 32- and 64-ounce growlers since he started a month ago. He does not imagine he would pursue the refillable container trade for wine, however.
"I'm not going to do it," Carney said. "It's more for restaurants that want to tap into the retail market."
That includes Barbera, who sees great possibilities and hopes the apparent lack of opposition to the bill is a promising sign.
"It's not over until it's over," he said, "but I'm optimistic."
Four other alcohol-related bills would potentially expand sales in Howard County. One would allow retirement communities to sell alcohol at social functions.
Another bill would allow local wine to be sold at farmers' markets, and a third, which would currently apply only to Victoria Gastro Pub, would allow the owners to sell at the pub beer they brew on their farm.
The fifth bill reduces from 500 to 400 feet the minimum distance between a restaurant with a liquor license and a public school. Guzzone said that bill is to accommodate a restaurateur who wants to open an Indian restaurant in Columbia on a site that is 489 feet from Wilde Lake Middle School.
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