Canned wine is at a crossroads.
Once written off as a passing fad, canned wine now looks poised to become a permanent fixture of the wine shelf. By mid-2016 its meteoric popularity was apparent, with annual sales reaching $14.5 million according to analytics firm Nielsen — a 125 percent year-over-year increase. This fall canned wine sales were up another 60 percent.
You don’t even need to look at the data. Just look around. Colorful cans of frizzante and chillable reds are everywhere: at the beach, at the music festival, at restaurants like Wise Sons. Seems like every week I learn of a new brand, often from respected producers of glass-bottled wine. What once felt like a crazy novelty — is it even possible for wine in a can to taste good? — now feels like a given. Yes, of course it can.
Now that it’s passed the fad threshold, canned wine has a choice to make. It could go one of two ways: the way of boxed wine, or the way of rosé. Let me explain.
For many Americans, for many years, both bag-in-box and rosé lived in the same neighborhood of mass-production, down-market wines. Whether it was a bladder of saccharine Franzia or a bottle of coral-hued Sutter Home White Zinfandel, both types of wines were manufactured to appeal to sweet-toothed, wallet-conscious and definitely-not-wine-snob drinkers.
When canned wine first entered the marketplace, it lived in that down-market neighborhood, too. Baroke’s Wines from Australia began canning wines as early as 1996; its Shiraz and Chardonnay-Semillon blends sell for the equivalent of about $2 a can. In the U.S., the first major player was Francis Ford Coppola, whose tiny pink Sofia Blanc de Blancs cans come with a tiny straw. A four-pack will set you back $13.99 at BevMo. The target audience? Those same definitely-not-wine-snob drinkers, especially, in the case of Sofia, women.
We all know what happened to rosé. Its dazzling ascent is one of the best-documented wine stories of our era, and, crucially, it took off precisely because the category improved in quality. Those cloying mini-bottles of Sutter Home are still stocking the fridges of convenience stores across America, but it’s the Provencal-style rosé — lighter in color, lower in sugar, higher in price — that has fueled the recent rosé revolution, its sales growing in volume by 53 percent last year alone.
Meanwhile, the bag-in-box set appears stuck irrevocably down-market. Even as marginally higher-end contenders appear, like Delicato’s Bota Box, Constellation’s Black Box and Gallo’s Naked Grape, the price ceiling remains around $20 for 3 liters, the equivalent of $5 per bottle. Sales are growing —around 25 percent last year for “premium” boxed wines; subpremium boxed wine sales are declining — but it’s nearly impossible to imagine a great wine (or, let’s be real, simply a dry wine) finding success in a bladder.
So, canned wine, which will it be?
“We want to have really serious wines,” says Jake Stover. He and his wife, Gina Schober, produce single-vineyard, vintage-dated wines in cans under their Napa-based Sans label. “The wines taste just as good as they would from a bottle.”
For now, Sans makes a Carignan rosé and a red Zinfandel from Poor Ranch in Mendocino, and a Sauvignon Blanc from Lake County’s Finley Road Vineyard — wines that both stylistically and economically make sense for a $10, 375ml can. (That’s half the size of a standard wine bottle.) But they’ve also got some Cabernet in the works, from Napa’s Soda Canyon area, and a Rutherford Riesling. Napa fruit is expensive and tends to produce bigger, tighter wines than aluminum might want. Stover and Schober can justify the fruit cost because they spend a lot less to can than to bottle (though the Cabernet can will still cost $25), and they use no oak, keeping the wines light and chillable.
“You actually have a really stable environment in a can,” Schober says. “There’s no UV penetration or oxygen exchange like there would be through a cork and glass bottle.”
Andrew Jones agrees. “You can’t treat this like a marketing fad,” says the Paso Robles winemaker, best known for his Field Recordings label. “It actually is good for the wine.”
For Jones, cans represent an opportunity for experimentation. Because he releases the wines early and saves, he estimates, 15 to 20 percent on packaging costs, he can take risks: a hopped rosé, a sparkling Chardonnay with peach puree, a wine spritzer. He has a can-only wine club that’s twice the size of his traditional wine club.
“I’ve been enamored with what craft beer has done,” Jones says, referring to the limited-edition releases of breweries like Monkish, Other Half and Tired Hands. Craft brewers have figured out how to generate excitement — and patience — for new, experimental products, and don’t have to charge a fortune.
“Typically when a wine becomes popular, it gets expensive,” Jones says, “But Pliny the Younger is still, what, $6 a pint? That’s one thing holding the wine world back.”
In addition to the unusual one-offs, Jones also produces more traditional wines in cans: rosé, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir under his Alloy label; carbonic Sangiovese, called Antipasto; and more. They’re crisp, light, quenching wines. They are well-made wines.
So are the Sans wines. So is Companion, a canned Riesling made by Ryan Stirm, one of our 2017 Winemakers to Watch. So is the Ferdinand Albariño from winemaker Evan Frazier. So is the canned bubbly from Arizona’s Dos Cabezas Wineworks.
These are all real wines made by real winemakers, who celebrate the can’s many virtues: a smaller environmental impact, a lower propensity for spoilage, a more economical cost of goods. Plus, canned wines are fun, they’re portable, and maybe, just maybe, they stand a chance to bring some new wine drinkers — say, craft beer devotees — into the fold.
If, that is, canned wine can stay good. As more players get into the canning game, spurred by encouraging Nielsen data, the risk is that the category can become overrun with bad examples. There are many already: candied rosé from House Wine; excessively buttery Chardonnay from Precept’s West Side brand; syrupy-sweet Moscato from Colorado’s Infinite Monkey Theorem. Will these prevent the serious canned wines from making their case on a larger stage? Will they make it impossible for canned wine to shed the image of those glittery pink Sofia cans with the tiny adhesive straws?
I’m betting — hoping, at least — that canned wine transcends its down-market beginnings, like rosé did. Why? Because if it succeeds, maybe it can help transform our conceptions of what “good wine” can be — expanding that term to include not only tannin-laden, muscular wines but also refreshing, early-drinking, light ones. Not only wines in weighty bottles whose labels are printed in cursive and whose necks are stuffed with a tree cork, but also wines in a cold sheath of aluminum.
Or, as Andrew Jones puts it: “Get used to it. It’s a real thing.”
By Esther Mobley
January 24, 2018
Image Source: Alloywineworks.com
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