Strolling through the aisles of Mission Wine and Spirits in Pasadena in 2017, I came to a screeching halt at what appeared to be canned wine.
Rows and rows of canned wine, in fact, from producers I knew and loved.
“What's going on?” I thought to myself. “When did Tangent start canning wine?” Because I like to think of myself as open-minded, I went ahead and purchased a few to take home and taste.
I got home, grabbed a glass (because, no matter how open-minded I am, something about drinking wine straight from a can didn’t sit right with me), and cracked open the first wine, a rosé from Tangent in San Luis Obispo, California. “This is weird,” I said to my husband as I poured from the can into the glass. “I think it is a cool idea!” he said enthusiastically. Bobby is a craft beer guy who is a big fan of canned beer. It was not too long ago that craft beer was almost exclusively packaged in bottles because cans were associated with cheap, mass-produced beer. “The fear with canning beer was that the aluminum would ruin the taste,” Bobby tells me. “But cans are lined now. Metallic taste isn’t a factor any longer.”
However, prejudice against anything without a bottle and natural cork runs deep in the wine community. Only in the last ten years did consumers begin accepting that high-end, delicious wine can indeed come from a bottle with a screw cap. But clearly things are changing; millennials have reached the legal drinking age and the market is evolving to meet their demands. While boxed wines will likely forever be associated with Franzia (and admittedly to me, the courage to finally tell my now-husband I thought he was hunky), canned wines are considered hip, cool, and more practically, portable.
As far as I can tell, the sheer versatility of canned wine is what drives many purchases, as much as the novelty of the packaging. People who like hiking but also like drinking wine find it heavy and cumbersome to pack in a 750 ml glass bottle. That bottle takes up valuable space in their backpacks, but a can of wine is smaller, lightweight, and generally easier to carry. This portability and lack of glass has been a huge factor in marketing canned wine. Tangent posts photos of their cans poolside on their social media platforms with the adage: “No glass, no corkscrews, no hassles.” Alloy Wine Works, a subsidiary of Field Recordings Wine in Paso Robles, California, has made statements to the effect of “Alloy strives to be the most portable and convenient wine,” asking their fans, “Where do you take your Alloy?”
Packaging wine (and beer) in cans not only makes these beverages more portable, however. There is a benefit to the producers: it is cheap. Between the cost of glass and good corks that won’t taint the wine (cheaper corks can result in wine loss due to TCA-a chemical derived from corks that causes wine to smell like wet newspaper-or in my case, dirty sponges), packaging wine in bottles is expensive. Further, storing glass bottles can be difficult. Glass breaks, it is heavy, and the shape and size of the bottles means that they are much more difficult to store on a shelf. Cans however are lightweight and most importantly can be easily stacked.
This is another benefit that has caught the attention of craft breweries, for whom shelf space in the marketplace can be hard to come by. “Where you can fit only a six-pack of glass bottles, you could instead fit a 12 pack of cans,” says Bobby. He works for a beer distributor and is thus, my resident expert on beer marketing. This means that craft breweries are literally doubling the amount of beer they can sell in the same amount of space. Though wine bottles are larger in format (750ml) than a wine can (375ml), the cans do fit more snugly on the shelf. Further, it is nice to have a smaller format can on hand. I am the only one that drinks wine in my household of two, which means if I open a 750ml bottle, I am going to have to drink it real quick before it spoils from oxidation. The smaller cans allow me to enjoy my wine without feeling guilty I might have to pour it out on day three.
As a wine professional however, I was concerned about flaws when tasting canned wine: would they smell and taste “reduced”? With traditionally bottled and corked wines, there is a micro-exchange of oxygen over time, but with a canned wine, that exchange is impossible. When a wine doesn’t have the necessary exposure to small amounts of oxygen, it can result in the wine having a skunky or burnt-matchstick smell. This was a big detractor when screw caps were first introduced in the wine industry; but as technology improved, permeable liners were created that helped prevent reduction in bottles closed by screw caps.
So far, most of the canned wine I have enjoyed has not had that reduced quality, with the notable exception of a can of cabernet sauvignon. I poured the wine in question into a decanter and allowed it to breathe for about an hour, another dubious moment for me as it felt a bit sacreligious to pour canned wine into my Riedel decanter. While the wine itself was still a bit funky after decanting, it didn’t have that overwhelming burnt-matchstick smell I had noticed before. In fact, the aroma had evolved into more of a brettanomyces-induced barnyard quality, which I happen to like, thank you very much.
I drew two conclusions from this event: 1. I am genuinely delighted by the canned wines that are intended to be enjoyed right away. The sauvignon blancs, rosés, and even the carbonic maceration, Beaujolais Nouveau-style reds (I’m looking at you, Sans Wine Co.) were fresh, light, and delicious. 2. I am not completely sold on canning wine I would traditionally age, such as cabernet sauvignon and even some chardonnay.
My final thought on this is that it is important to note the types of activities people might be engaging in when they purchase canned wines. As my wise sister told me when I asked for her thoughts on cans, “I would rather drink a cold white [or] rosé-style wine while hiking or doing any kind of outdoor activity. The undeniable ease of portability is the most obvious benefit to me.” This statement makes me curious at how many cans of so-called “porch pounders” (crisp whites and rosés) versus what I call “sleepy-time wine” (heavy reds) are being sold. Is it close to 50/50, or do consumers favor one over the other? Perhaps with the advancement of can technology we will see reds come out on top.
In the opinion of a woman willing to try wine of every color and quality, can wineries be showcasing and selling their artful beverages in a package more commonly used for beer and soda? Yes. Yes, they can.
Heather Daenitz is the founder and photographer of Craft & Cluster, a wine & beer photography and social media marketing company based in Santa Barbara County, California.
When she isn't photographing and assisting wineries and breweries with their social media, Heather can be found hanging out with her husband, two dogs, and three chickens in their backyard garden.