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High-quality wines no longer found in bottles alone

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    After just a few years on the market, sales of wine in cans are soaring, and now, some of it is even pretty good.

A few years ago while driving in Sonoma County, Calif., Gina Schober and her husband, Jake Stover, had a discussion that led to a brainstorm.

They were talking about wine-loving friends who enjoyed hiking, bicycling and boating but did not want to be burdened by heavy bottles of wine and related paraphernalia on their outings. Unfortunately, their friends did not like beer.

Why not, the couple asked themselves, put fine wine in cans?

In 2016, Schober and Stover started Sans Wine Co., dedicated to making good California wine and putting it into convenient, lightweight cans, the sort of containers that would be easy to take to the beach or on a hike.

They were well positioned to take on the challenge. Stover was a vineyard manager who had made wine and had the connections necessary to find desirable vineyards with available grapes. Schober, who works for a wine brokerage, knew how to market and sell wine.

And so, Sans Wine joined the nascent but fast-growing category of canned wines. While many of the early canned wines were made of unknown grapes from dubious origins, pitched at people who were intimidated by wine culture, Sans’ twist is selling single-vineyard, organically grown varietal wines, made as naturally as possible, expressly for people who love wine.

These wines do not require that wine cellars be configured to store cans for years of aging. They are simply satisfying in exactly the way they ought to be, to take advantage of the container’s benefits — fresh, thirst-quenching and delicious.

“Just because it’s in a can, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be good,” Schober said. “We wanted to put wines that we would want to drink in cans.”

Wine in cans accounted for $70 million in retail sales in the United States over the year ending in March, said Danny Brager, a senior vice president of the Nielsen Co., which tracks sales. That’s up from $42 million in the previous year and less than $10 million three years earlier.

“Canned wines continue to grow at phenomenal levels, even accelerating into the most current periods,” Brager said. “At the same time, they still represent a relatively small proportion of wines, with just a 0.4% share.”

Cans have had a roller-coaster reputation since beer was first packaged in steel containers in the 1930s. Those cans were heavy, and required what came to be known as a “church key” to open them. Still, they were widely appreciated for the convenience they offered.

By the 1970s, cans were made of lightweight aluminum, with pop-tops that could be tossed away — convenient, but disastrous for the environment. What’s more, the embryonic craft beer movement disdained cans for the metallic taste they imparted. These problems were eventually solved by substituting stay-on tabs and lining the cans with polymer.

By the early 2000s, even craft beer enthusiasts had embraced cans. Nowadays, ciders are showing up in metal, along with ready-to-drink cocktails and mixed drinks.

CANNED ADVANTAGES

Cans have advantages over bottles. They are portable and lightweight, and can be used where glass is not appropriate: at pools, beaches, rock concerts and sporting events, and on the sort of backpacking trips that inspired the Sans Wine founders.

They are kinder to the environment than glass: easier to recycle, lighter to ship and requiring fewer packing materials.

Other reasons have led people deeply immersed in fine wine to the can solution. When Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, partners at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colo., opened a pizzeria nearby, they poured sparkling wines like Lambrusco and prosecco by the glass.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to pour out a half-bottle of Lambrusco that was no longer fresh,” said Stuckey, a sommelier who also produces wines from Italy under the Scarpetta label. “So we thought single-serving wines would be great.”

Beginning in 2016, they started selling 250-milliliter cans of Lambrusco and Frizzante, a proscecco-like sparkling wine, under the Frico by Scarpetta label. The Lambrusco is lightly sweet but finely balanced and gently fizzy.

The purpose was to control costs at the restaurant, Stuckey said. But the cans have proved popular far beyond.

“We didn’t understand how much people would love them for picnics and things,” he said in a phone interview. “I just did an event in a store in Boston, where commuters are buying them for their train rides. It’s on all the ferries in Seattle.”

As with most cans used for food, a plastic liner separates the contents from the metal. Stover, of Sans Wines, said he sends samples of his wines to Ball, the glass-jar manufacturer, which analyzes them to determine the thickness of the lining.

“The can is an extremely stable environment,” Stover said.

Wine is an acidic beverage, more so than beer but not as much as cola, so at some undetermined point it will begin to eat away at the lining. For this reason alone, it probably would not be advisable to age canned wines for years, the way bottled wines are aged.

PORTION SIZE

The Sans wines come in 375-milliliter cans, about the size of a 12-ounce beer and the equivalent of a half-bottle of wine. Most canned wines are either 375 milliliters or 250 milliliters (the size of a can of Red Bull). While the 375s can be sold individually, the federal government prohibits individual sales of the 250-milliliter cans, requiring that they be sold in four-packs.

Until people get used to wine in cans, proceed cautiously. The psychological association of the 12-ounce beer can with a single serving might prompt some drinkers to unthinkingly down a couple of cans of wine — with regrettable results.

Sans Wine is intended for wine geeks, the people who care that the wines are fermented with indigenous yeast rather than inoculated with commercial yeast, and that they are stabilized with minimum, if any, sulfur dioxide, which is nearly universally used in the wine world. The cans have been shown at Raw Wine, a natural wine fair.

Some notables: McGill Vineyard riesling from 60-year-old vines in Rutherford in Napa Valley, which is dry, resonant and lip-smacking, and Carbonic Carignan from Mendocino County, produced using the carbonic-maceration method, common in Beaujolais and with numerous natural wines. It is fresh, floral, bright and lightly tannic.

The riesling and the carignan are both priced at $15, while the $25 for a can of 2017 Napa cabernet — floral, fruity and easygoing — might cause double takes.

Stover justified it in the context of Napa Valley. “For single-vineyard, organic Napa cab, you’re looking at $100 on the shelf,” he said. “We’re offering a great value, considering.”

For many canned-wine producers, the quality of the wine is secondary to the presentation, which is pitched as an antidote to wine snobbery. Union Wine Co. in Oregon, which sells Underwood rosé in 375-milliliter cans for $28 a four-pack, does not tell customers what kinds of grapes go into the wine, where specifically they were grown or what year they were harvested. The point is this: The rigmarole around wine is intimidating. You don’t need to do anything but drink and enjoy.

All wine should be like that, anyway.

For people who already love wine, even the most narrow-minded should embrace the can, just as they should boxed wines, as a rational container for easy-drinking wines intended to be consumed without aging.

STRAIGHT FROM THE CAN

At La Calenda in Yountville, Calif., a taqueria opened in January by chef Thomas Keller, the wine list includes a half-dozen 375-milliliter cans in lieu of half-bottles. When served, the cans are placed on the table next to a stemless glass, which the restaurant uses for all its wines.

“Guests can decide for themselves whether to pour it or drink it out of the can,” said Eric Jefferson, the general manager.

One of the cans on the list is La Bulle-Moose Rousse 2017, from Bonny Doon Vineyard, a pleasantly fruity, energetic sparkling red made mostly of California grenache with some syrah. Bonny Doon also made a sparkling white and a sparkling white in 2017, but is pausing to reassess its plans for canned wines, said Randall Grahm, its proprietor.

“When I had the idea, nobody else was doing it,” he said. “Nothing was in the field, then suddenly, like a Western movie, they’re on all the ridges, hundreds with the same idea at the same time.”

Perhaps the biggest leap in cans, and an unqualified success, comes from Jordan Salcito, a sommelier turned wine entrepreneur, who has reimagined the canned wine cooler.

Salcito, who is not a beer lover, fantasized about products that she could drink at parties while others were enjoying beers, something reminiscent of Aperol spritzes in “cute little bottles.” But in a period of professional frustration with the fine-wine culture, she hit on once-declasse wine coolers, made with organic wines from Italy blended with organic grape juice as a sweetener.

The idea coincided with pregnancy and motherhood, which pushed her to consider the environmental aspects of the packaging. And so Ramona, named for an imaginary childhood friend of her younger sister, was born.

The first batch was produced in October 2017. It is now distributed in 43 states and Canada, England, Ireland and Singapore.

It’s available in grapefruit, lemon and, as of this summer, blood orange. Ramona is 7% alcohol, and costs $20 for a four-pack of 250-milliliter cans.

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