Canned wine is catching on. It’s not unusual to find cans of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and rosé on store shelves and being hawked at music festivals. Once considered a novelty, cans have burst into the mainstream, enticing young wine drinkers to pop the tab with their easy-drinking style, convenient packaging and value.
Cans are one of the fastest-growing forms of alternative wine packaging on the market—a burgeoning category that includes bag-in-a-box and Tetra Paks, the same packaging being used for juice boxes. Last year, canned wine sales jumped 69 percent to more than $69 million, totaling 739,000 cases in retail outlets tracked by Nielsen. That’s up from just $2 million in sales in 2012.
Wine lovers can find an increasing array of brands from domestic and international producers packaged in aluminum containers. Some are new canned-only brands while others are established names in new packaging.
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Many of California’s largest wine players are jumping into the game, including E. & J. Gallo, Treasury Wine Estates and Foley Family Wines. They join The Wine Group and The Family Coppola, which set the stage for modern American canned wine with its Sofia Mini Blanc de Blancs in the early 2000s.
John Wilkinson, managing partner at Bin to Bottle, a custom-crush winery in Napa, says that he had nearly 20 clients lined up to can their wine before he had even finished installing the canning line earlier this year. The nascent category is still evolving and Wilkinson admits that there is still a lot to learn about canning wine. “It’s still a little like the Wild West,” he said.
The popularity of canned wine typically spikes in spring and summer as wine lovers head outdoors. But that’s beginning to change. “There has traditionally been seasonality in the wine category, but what we see is a pretty steady demand year-round for cans and bottles,” said John Anthony Truchard, of JaM Cellars, who started packaging his Butter Chardonnay and Candy Rosé in cans last year.
“The outdoor and active sport community has certainly embraced the cans, and we are also seeing folks in big cities purchase them for the portion size for home or outings around town,” Ryan Harms, founder of Union Wine Co. in Oregon, told Wine Spectator. Union Wine Co. was at the forefront of the canned wine movement when it started packaging its Underwood Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in 375ml cans—equivalent to half a bottle—in 2014. Since then, Underwood’s lineup has expanded, with 55 percent of its wines packaged in cans, totaling 244,000 cases worth of wine in 2018. And Harms expects that figure to nearly double this year.
The Millennial generation is driving much of canned wine’s growth, drawn to its portable and recyclable packaging. Cans are also lighter and more durable than bottles and can be enjoyed directly from the container, making them more park, beach and festival friendly than glass.
Think outside the bottle
“Millennials have grown up in a world where consuming wine outdoors—or any location outside of the traditional table—is more acceptable than generations past,” said Kate McManus, VP of marketing for Delicato Family Wines, which produces the Bota Box brand, one of the largest boxed wine producers.
While canned wine sales continue to grow, boxed wine remains the most popular non-glass wine package. Drawn by their convenience and value, consumers continue to reach for 3-liter boxes. A 3-liter box of wine contains the same amount as 4 standard-size bottles. The bag-in-a-box technology also protects the wine from oxygen, keeping it fresh for about two to three weeks after it’s opened.
Black Box leads the way in the boxed wine category, increasing production by nearly 1 million cases annually since 2015, according to Market Watch, a sister publication of Wine Spectator. The brand produced the equivalent of nearly 7.4 million cases of wine in 2018. Producers are also offering smaller, more portable options, such as 1.5-liter boxes and 500ml Tetra Pak containers.
Potentially more than picnic wine?
Despite the sales growth, the canned category only accounts for 0.4 percent share of the overall wine market, however, according to Nielsen. But some winemakers see a broader audience for canned wine. “I really think the target demographic is wide open,” argues Ron Penner-Ash, winemaker at Free Public, which sources wine from California, Oregon and Washington. Ron, who co-founded Penner-Ash winery, believes that higher-end wine in a can would make a good fit for golf clubs and sports venues.
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The best canned wines are typically made to be fresh and fruity in style with little to no oak contact, and should be consumed shortly after canning. Harms says that’s the appeal of the Underwood wines, noting that they have “an implied ‘ready to drink’ quality, which allows them to lend themselves to the can better than other styles might.”
In recent official Wine Spectator blind tastings, more than a dozen wines scored very good, or 85-89 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. Rosé and white wine show the most promise, such as West + Wilder’s White American NV (88 points, $20), sold in a three-pack of 250ml cans, one of the most popular sizes; and Ferdinand’s Rosé California 2018 (87, $9), a single-vineyard Carignan. Union Wine Co.’s snappy and fruit-forward Underwood Pinot Noir Oregon NV (87, $7) was the highest scoring red wine in a can.
“In the short time I’ve been doing this, the perception is beginning to shift,” said Matt Allan, who co-founded West + Wilder with his friend Kenny Rochford in 2018. West + Wilder is one of the new can-only producers trying to elevate the category by tapping established appellations such as Sonoma and Mendocino, and canning better-quality wines.
Whether cans will ever be more than easy-drinking sips remains to be seen. Producers admit that the appeal is less about the winemaker or where the wine comes from. “I’m not going to sit down at Thanksgiving with a can of our red blend,” said Penner-Ash. “It just doesn’t work in that setting, for me or for most people.”