Text by Dave McIntyre, The Washington Post
"I love this can," my 19-year-old daughter exclaimed when she opened the refrigerator. She grabbed the 250 milliliter can of Lil Fizz, from No Fine Print Wine, and caressed it in her hands, like a TV model showing off an expensive face cream.
"It's rose gold, a perfect colour for millennials, and this DIY script is great," she said. Written as though by marker on a napkin while brainstorming over a meal, the labelling included three lines describing the wine as "tastes like sunshine," highly "crushable," and with just the right amount of fizz. "That's all you need to know," she said. (For the record, my daughter's expertise lies more in art and design than in wine. At least, I think so.)
You will be seeing more wine in cans soon. That's a fair bet.
Canned wines were initially a niche category dominated by smaller, innovative wineries responding to a new potential market. Field Recordings in Paso Robles, California, Underwood in Oregon and Old Westminster in Maryland were early adopters. Santa Julia, a value-oriented organic label from Argentina, is now on the market not just with 375-milliliter cans, but also koozies to keep them cold as well as plastic lids to preserve any leftovers. Amble & Chase sells a tasty French rosé for about R300 for four 250ml cans. Old Westminster took the rain-diluted harvest from the trying 2018 vintage and made a tasty spritzers, marketed in 250ml cans as Better Wine.
And now the big boys are getting into the game. Ste. Michelle Estates, Washington state's largest producer, is selling its popular 14 Hands label in cans. In early June, Bonterra trumpeted the first canned California organic wines, with sauvignon blanc, rosé and a "young red" blend in a four-pack 250ml cans.
Also this month, Trinchero Family Estates, one of California's top five wineries, announced the release of its Pomelo label sauvignon blanc and rosé for $6 per 375ml can. This may be a test of the market - if Trinchero starts putting its Sutter Home wines in aluminum, the category will really take off.
Canned wine accounts for a tiny fraction of the market, still only about 1 percent. But sales of cans increased 69 percent in 2018, with volume up 47 percent over the previous year, according to Beverage Media, citing Nielsen statistics. That compared with a 5 percent increase in box wines and a 14.2 percent gain for wine in Tetra Paks. With large companies like Trinchero and Ste. Michelle joining the game, these numbers should increase dramatically.
Marketing types are certainly hyperventilating over cans' potential. Cans are "perfectly portioned and perfectly portable ... in a gorgeous, Instagram-ready package," one press released huffed. Cans are touted as ideal not just for picnics, but also for hikes, as they are much lighter than bottles. Really? I'd rather drink water on a hike and save the wine for afterward. I want to find my way home, after all.
Hyperbole aside, there's great potential to this category. As I wrote last week, aluminium cans are friendlier to the environment than glass bottles in terms of carbon footprint in production and transport to market. They are also dramatically more valuable than glass as a recycled product.
The 375ml cans, slightly larger than the familiar 355ml soda can, are a logical replacement for half bottles, which never really caught on with consumers or wineries despite their convenience for people who don't want to consume an entire bottle in one sitting or deal with leftovers.
But the 250ml can (basically a generous 8-ounce pour) may be the ideal size for consumers. It amounts to a single generous glass, plus a bonus splash as a reward, the "just a little bit more" that completes an evening. A survey conducted earlier this year by Robert Williams Jr. of Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, along with Helena Williams and Matthew Bauman from Texas Tech University, noted a consumer preference for the 250ml size.
Of 1,700 consumers surveyed, 43 percent preferred the 250ml can, while only 50 percent of wineries who use cans offer that size. In contrast, only 21 percent of consumers favored the 375ml format, while 42 percent of producers adopting cans used it.
By a quirk of federal regulations, 250ml cans must be sold in four-packs, while other sizes, including 500, 375 and 187ml, may be sold individually. Federal regulators are taking public comments on packaging size and other issues.
"Why can't cans be convenient?" asks Jim Trezise, president of the winery trade association Wine America. "Wine in cans has exploded in recent years," he says, employing a perhaps unfortunate image, "and may be sold in individual cans of 187ml - too little - and 375ml - too much - but not 250ml, which is just right."
Trezise says the requirement that 250ml cans be sold in packs of four is "just not fair." Allowing sales of individual cans "would likely increase sales while encouraging moderation through portion control," he said.
Feature Image: Tom McCorkle, The Washington Post