Here’s an easy prediction for 2018: Sometime during this year, you are likely to buy wine packaged in a can.
Just don’t drink it from the can.
First, the cans: If you haven’t seen wine sold in cans yet, you probably will soon. Wine in cans still represents only a few percentage points of the market, but sales have exploded in the past few years, from about $2 million in sales in 2012 to nearly $15 million in 2016, according to Business Insider magazine. Last summer, Trader Joe’s offered an inexpensive canned bubbly called Simpler Wines, which sold out as fast as they could restock the shelves.
Canned wine has been marketed primarily for summer, because of its portability and, well, maybe also the ability to disguise what you’re drinking in public places. Wine bottles are conspicuous on the beach or the tennis court, after all. Cans are ideal for fresh, unpretentious wines, such as rosé. And they have aided the return of wine coolers and spritzers, low-alcohol wine-based concoctions that we thought we outgrew in the ’80s. Some wineries, such as Field Recordings in Paso Robles, in central California, or Underwood in Oregon, were early adopters; cans helped them set their brands apart from others on store shelves.
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There are other reasons to like cans. They come in various sizes, generally from 250 to 500 milliliters, smaller than the standard 750ml bottle. It’s nice to have good wine in smaller packages for times when you’re drinking alone, or when he wants red and she wants white, or vice versa. A 375ml can, the same as a standard soda can, is equivalent to a half bottle, a package that unfortunately has not found favor with producers or consumers. I have seen liter-size cans, ideal for when two people want the same wine. Cans are light, they take up less space, they’re unbreakable and easier to recycle.
St. Mayhem, based in Healdsburg, is reinventing the wine cooler with concoctions such as Ginger Loves Company, a white wine blended with ginger and peaches – and yes, sold in cans. For winter, the company released Hückfest, a spiced red wine for aprés-ski developed with famed California winemaker Andy Erickson. Think of drinking red wine that has marinated a pomander orange. It’s rather delicious chilled, even better warmed up, and it’s a lovely way to snap winter’s chill.
In November, Old Westminster Winery in Maryland released three wines in cans, including a red blend of cabernet franc and barbera called Carbonic, after the fermentation technique designed to produce fruity, easy-drinking wines. The others are a skin-fermented pinot grigio called Seeds & Skins and a sparkling wine called Farmer Fizz.
“To date, thoughtful, handmade wine in a can isn’t much of a thing, but we’re going to challenge that notion,” says Old Westminster’s Drew Baker.
And there’s demand for such wine: Even before release, the Old Westminster in a can had secured distribution in Maryland, Virginia, the District, New York, Boston and Chicago. Demand turned out to be high in the Washington area and Chicago, so wine lovers in New York and Boston will have to wait until spring to see Old Westminster’s cans on their shelves.
“If only we could make more,” Baker says. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to ramp up wine production to meet demand. Planting new vineyards takes years.
So now to drinking this stuff. As Americans, we are used to drinking soda, beer, sparkling water, even hard cider from cans. In emergencies, when you need to slake your thirst, fine. But please, if you want to enjoy your wine, pour it into a glass. Or at least a plastic cup when you’ve hiked up a mountain and want to have a celebratory toast before staggering back down.
I learned this lesson not on a mountaintop but in an airplane-hanger-size convention hall in Bordeaux in 2015. It was Vinexpo, the biennial bacchanal-as-trade-show that attracts wine professionals from all over China. My guru was Maximilian Riedel, of the Austrian company famous for persuading some of us to buy different shaped wine glasses for every variety of wine we drink, a strategy I don’t support. I had interviewed him a couple times over Skype, so I was eager to meet him in person.
Riedel had just introduced a special glass for Coca-Cola, and that’s what he was shilling that day at Vinexpo. I thought it was a farce, and told him so. But to be fair, I said, “Give me the spiel.”
He popped open a can. I took a sip. It tasted vaguely of dried prunes. “You didn’t smell it,” he said. “You can’t smell it from the can.”
He then poured some into a plastic cup, and some into one of his highfalutin $20 Coke glasses. This resembled the classic Coke glass of the 1970s, but it is smaller and sleeker. The soda in plastic burbled aimlessly, but in the glass it produced a rich frothy mousse and explosive bubbles I could hear. I smelled it, then took a sip and hiccupped loudly. It was a Proustian moment, taking me back to my pre-Big Gulp childhood. In the cup, the Coke was flat and one-dimensional. From the glass it gave me lemon, orange, clove and other spices.
I repeated this trial recently with the Old Westminster Carbonic. It was fine from the can, better from a plastic GoVino tumbler and delicious from a wine glass.
So here’s a conundrum: Cans are supposed to make wine more portable and informal, freeing us from the need to carry stemware everywhere. But apart from the novelty, it can also make wine less enjoyable. And producers will package crummy wine in cans and sell it to you cheap, assuming you will drink it out of the can and not know the difference. Look for the good stuff, take a sip from the can, then pour some into a glass. You’ll know what you bought.