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Canned fine wines (above).

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Jake Stover and Gina Schober (above), owners of Sans Wine Co, are dedicated to making good California wine.

For connoisseurs and Joe Sixpack: Swig on canned wines

May 10, 2019 5:50 AM

A FEW years ago while driving in Sonoma County, California, 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.

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

Organic, varietal wines

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's 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 ageing. 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," Ms Schober said. "We wanted to put wines that we would want to drink in cans." Wine in cans accounted for US$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 US$42 million in the previous year and less than US$10 million three years earlier.

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

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 require 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, Colorado, 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 Mr 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-millilitre cans of Lambrusco and Frizzante, a proscecco-like sparkling wine, under the Frico by Scarpetta label.

The purpose was to control costs at the restaurant, Mr 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."

'Stable environment'

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

"The can is an extremely stable environment," Mr 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, I would not plan to age canned wines for years, as I would bottles.

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

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 stabilised 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.

They are not yet available in New York, but I was able to try samples of the six wines Sans made from the 2017 vintage. My favourites included McGill Vineyard riesling from 60-year-old vines in Rutherford in Napa Valley, which was 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 was fresh, floral, bright and lightly tannic.

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

Great value

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

Union Wine Co in Oregon, which sells Underwood rose in 375-millilitre cans for US$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.

Don't take it personally, wine lovers. The wine-snob card is a crude straw man, of course, but we know what they mean: The rigmarole around wine is intimidating.

All wine should be like that, anyway. And the Bridge Lane canned sauvignon blanc, a non-vintage wine from New York grapes, is tangy, textured and satisfying. I would drink it even if I were banished as a snob. For people who already love wine, even the most narrow-minded should embrace the can.

At La Calenda in Yountville, California, a taqueria opened in January by chef Thomas Keller, the wine list includes a half-dozen 375-millilitre 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.

Mr Salcito, who is not a beer lover, fantasised 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. NYTIMES