Canned wine was once a novelty. No longer.
In less than a decade, sales of wine in cans have jumped from just $2 million in 2012 to $183.6 million over the 52-week period ending July 11. Representing nearly 1.8 million cases of wine, the past year’s sales vaulted 68 percent higher than those of the previous 52 weeks, according to Nielsen data.
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The category is booming in all aspects, from quality to sales to selection to availability. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, wine in cans was already a hit at sports stadiums, concert venues and pretty much anywhere glass containers aren’t allowed, but restaurants and bars are catching on as well. It is the fastest-growing segment of the market, tempting consumers with its convenience and wines made in an approachable style. And cans are poised for even greater success.
”The canned wines category is continuing to grow at its pre-COVID rate, and our internal numbers reflect that larger industry trend,” Brie Wohld, vice president of marketing at Trinchero told Wine Spectator. Trinchero recently launched its first entry into the realm of canned wine with Pomelo Wine Co. Sauvignon Blanc, joining a host of major wine industry players including E. & J. Gallo (Dark Horse and Barefoot Spritzer), Constellation Brands (Crafter’s Union, Kim Crawford and Woodbridge) and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (14 Hands).
“We always felt that [canned wine] was not a fad, and that is why we stuck with it,” said Corey Beck, CEO at The Family Coppola, a pioneer in modern American canned wine with its Sofia Mini Blanc de Blancs, launched in 2004. The company installed a new canning line this year at its Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville and is producing some of its Diamond Collection wines in 250ml cans, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.
Millennials drove much of the growth in canned wine sales earlier in the decade, but producers are finding that wine drinkers of all ages are drawn to the packaging’s convenience and reliability. “From my perspective, canned wine has always been about its context in your lifestyle, which means it is not exclusive to outdoor, or certain demographic groups,” said Ryan Harms, who founded Union Wine Co. in Oregon in 2005. One of the early leaders in the canned wine category, nearly 400,000 cases of Union Wine Co’s Underwood brand were sold in 2019, according to Impact Databank, a sister publication of Wine Spectator.
Winemakers also see cans as a good way to reach new consumers who might find traditional bottles intimidating. Constellation is making its Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon in cans and partnering with NFL teams, including the New York Giants, Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Bears. And canned wine scored another touchdown when beverage giant Anheuser-Busch’s Babe brand became the official wine sponsor of the NFL last year.
”Enjoying wine in cans defies the misconception that wine is only suitable for stemware and creates a place for wine in casual, fun, often outdoor occasions like sports games, tailgates and barbecues,” said Jaymie Schoenberg, vice president of brand marketing for Constellation’s wine and spirits division. Schoenberg believes that cans are breaking down barriers for new wine drinkers by allowing consumers to try new brands and varietals without committing to a full bottle. Most cans are produced in single-serving sizes, with a 250ml can equivalent to roughly a glass and a half of wine.
”We are experiencing a blurring of the drinking habits of America,” said Terry Wheatley, president of Vintage Wine Estates, who notes that consumers have become more open to trying different kinds of alcoholic beverages. Last year, the company purchased Paso Robles–based Alloy Wine Works, one of the can-only brands tapping well-established AVAs in California and raising the quality bar for wine in cans.
It’s not just the category’s sales that are skyrocketing; the caliber of the wine in the cans is on the rise as well, with AVA- and vintage-specific cannings leading the quality charge. Overall, white wines and rosés typically perform best, but reds are improving as well. In recent blind tastings, more than a dozen canned wines scored 85 to 89 points, or very good, on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale.
The alternative packaging format is also attracting producers and fans of “natural” wine. Sans Wine Co.’s intense and mouthwatering Sauvignon Blanc Lake County Finley Road Vineyard 2018 (89 points, $10/375ml) is among this year’s top-scoring canned wines. Husband-and-wife owners Jake Stover and Gina Schober focus on organic vineyards from some of California’s top AVAs. “We are treating this very similar to a high-quality bottled-wine project,” explains Stover, who uses native yeasts and no oak to keep the wines light and fresh.
Sans Wine Co.’s lineup includes a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, a Mendocino County Zinfandel and a Rutherford Riesling, and the wines retail for between $10 and $25 per 375ml can. Stover says they’ve convinced a few upscale restaurants to carry them, including the Charter Oak, a sister venue of Wine Spectator Grand Award winner the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena. And more restaurants are considering canned wines as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and shift to pick-up and delivery models.
Joining Sans Wine Co. in the canned natural wine club is Broc Cellars, a small urban winery in Berkeley, Calif. Owner and winemaker Chris Brockway believes that cans are a good fit for his low-intervention style of winemaking, employing native yeasts and little to no additional sulfur (which he says can react with the lining of the cans). His 2019 Love Red North Coast (87 points, $10/375ml) is a blend of Carignan, Valdiguié and Syrah.
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The advantages of cans are myriad: The recyclable packaging is resistant to oxidation and light, there’s no risk of cork taint, it’s easier and lighter to carry than glass (and doesn’t require a corkscrew) and it costs less to produce and ship. “We’re seeing a roughly 25 percent decrease in costs,” said Sans Wine Co.’s Stover.
Canned wine is sold in a variety of sizes, from 187ml to 500ml containers. Under current regulations, only certain sizes such as 375ml cans—the equivalent of a half-bottle of wine—can be sold individually. But the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is proposing to eliminate most of the standards of fill for wine. That could allow wineries to package wine in 355ml cans, the standard size of a beer can, as well as sell 250ml cans individually, potentially opening up new markets.
Wine drinkers could see more wineries large and small jumping into the game as canning and contract-packing facilities improve the packaging process. “Consistency is one of the challenges for this burgeoning category,” said Matthew Allan, who co-founded West + Wilder, one of the can-only brands packaging higher quality wines, including a non-vintage Pinot Noir from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley (87, $17 for a three-pack of 250ml cans). He says early problems with the canning process, such as leaking seams, were a barrier for smaller wineries.
Another small-production newcomer to the can scene is Maker Wine, co-founded by Stanford Business School classmates Sarah Hoffman and Kendra Kawala. They’re partnering with boutique California winemakers including Chris Christensen of Bodkin Wines. Hoffman believes cans transcend the wine market. “I definitely don’t see canned wines as competing with bottles,” she said, acknowledging that cans still face a format bias among fine wines.
Wine lovers now have more canned wines to choose from than ever before. Wineries in California, Oregon, Washington, New York and beyond have jumped on the aluminum bandwagon, as have brands in virtually every other major winegrowing country. Vintage Wine Estates and Trinchero are also launching canned wine cocktails and spritzers. “Throughout the past year, we’ve learned that many consumers prefer a smaller volume of wine and a lower ABV,” said Trinchero’s Wohld.
It’s unclear yet how big an impact COVID-19 will have on canned wine and other alternative forms of packaging. “This has been a significant disruption for us,” said West + Wilder’s Allan. Canned wine sales traditionally peak in spring and summer, when outdoor recreation and leisure activities boost demand. In 2020, however, the social gatherings and outdoor events at which cans are most popular have been severely curtailed.
Nevertheless, winemakers remain optimistic that canned wine sales will continue to grow despite the restrictions. Sans Wine Co.’s Stover says his retail sales are up, and sees even more opportunities for cans: “There is so much room for growth.”