The idea for Proletariat started when winemaker Sean Boyd of Rotie Cellars was talking to a bartender at the Marcus Whitman Hotel in Walla Walla. The bartender said to Boyd, “We need to come up with a better way of pouring wine.”
The problem with restaurant glass pours is as follows. To ensure that the business makes money – even if they only pour one glass of wine from a bottle – a restaurant must set the glass pour price above the bottle’s wholesale cost. This means that the wine is expensive relative to its overall quality.
What does this look like in dollars? Let’s say the wholesale cost of a bottle of red wine is $7, and the retail price $10. The restaurant might decide to sell the wine for somewhere between $8 and $10 – close if not equal to the retail cost. If a consumer wants to go up in quality, expect the price of the glass pour to double or triple. Two glasses of good – not even great – quality wine for $40? I don’t think so. And let’s not even talk about bottle prices.
This is where Proletariat comes in. Proletariat Wine Company was founded by Rotie Cellars’ Sean Boyd and Darin Williams of Small Lot Co-op. The idea behind Proletariat is simple. Boyd and Williams work with some of the Northwest’s best wineries that have juice that doesn’t fit into their programs. Proletariat subsequently purchases the wine and provides it to restaurants and bars by the keg.
“Every winery brings in more fruit than they bottle, even small guys,” Boyd says. “All we’re doing is capitalizing on great relationships with small producers.”
By offering the wine by the keg, Proletariat is able to greatly reduce the cost of the wine by eliminating glass, cork, label, and bottle and decreasing transportation cost. This allows Proletariat to offer its wines at low prices.
The key for Proletariat, however, is the quality of the wine, not the cost savings. “Everyone else is selling the keg first,” Williams says. “We’re selling the keg last. It’s about what’s in the vessel.”
While Boyd and Williams are tight-lipped about the specific sources of the juice for the Proletariat wines, for obvious reasons, it is clear tasting these wines that they come from high quality producers.
Proletariat’s current portfolio includes standard offerings as well as custom blends. Sampling a number of these wines at restaurants around Seattle, the wines are consistently impressive, especially for their offering prices. The Sauvignon Blanc is perhaps the biggest standout of the current offerings, full of herbal flavors and bright acidity. But a Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for an inexpensive glass pour price? Yes please. How about a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir? Another glass? Yes I think I will!
The response to Proletariat so far has been strong. The company had its first placement in Seattle in the first week of March. Williams and Boyd intentionally started out with a few restaurants and bars to work out any kinks in the overall process. Then they began rapidly expanding. Proletariat is now in over 30 bars and restaurants in the Seattle area.
Ten Mercer on Queen Anne is one of them. General Manager Brian Curry says of offering Proletariat keg wine, “For us, it makes perfect sense. The cost savings on bottles, corks, labels and shipping – not to mention the lack of waste – allow us to offer a super premium product at an attractive glass pour at a savings to our guests. It’s an environmentally friendly concept that is easy to embrace.”
Ten Mercer offers a custom-blended house red from Proletariat at $9.75 for a (healthy) glass pour. This is by far – by far – the best glass pour wine I have had at this price point, drinking like a wine of easily double that cost. It is surely the only glass pour wine I have ever found myself thinking about days later. Curry says it has become Ten Mercer’s number one selling selection.
Henri Schock of Bottlehouse in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood has also started selling Proletariat wines. “Because the kegs are preserved with argon gas, there is zero waste, and every pull from the tap is a fresh glass of wine,” Shock says. “That is peace of mind for bar owners.” The wines have been a hit with consumers. “We actually have a small following of people that come in weekly just for their Proletariat fix,” Schock says.
Meanwhile at Skillet on Capitol Hill, one hundred percent of the wine is Proletariat. The wines are served in mason jars with the reds $7 and the whites $6. The program has been hugely successful, with the low cost a big reason.
Of course, inevitably, not all businesses selling Proletariat have passed the keg wine savings along to consumers. Some have maintained a regular bottle price and kept the margin. But most have not, providing patrons with higher quality wine at a more affordable price.
So where is the keg wine movement ultimately going? “I firmly believe that this is the future of wine,” says Erik Segelbaum, Corporate Wine Director for Schwartz Brothers Restaurants (Daniels Broiler, Chandler’s Crabhouse, Spazzo Italian Grill and Wine Bar). His restaurants also carry the Proletariat wines. “Kegs now are where screwcaps were 10 years ago. After doing the research it was clear that keg/draft programs had substantial benefits and almost no negatives.”
Bottlehouse’s Henri Schock adds, “It is fun to witness people bellying up to our bar and ask what’s on draft, and they’re not talking about beer.”