Two Cheers for Canned Wine

cansCanned wine has been around for a while, but has gained traction in just the last couple of years.  Some observers  are suspicious that it is just a fad — a flash in the pan — that won’t last for long.  If that’s true, then it is an impressive flash. Canned wine sales in the off-premises channels that the Nielsen company measures were $70 million for the 52 weeks ending June 15, 2019. That’s 69% growth for the year. In a market where growth is hard to find, canned wine is a winner.

(The graph above shows Nielsen data for sales through 4/20/2019. I see more canned wine brands and SKUs on the store shelves every week.)

What’s more, Nielsen research suggests that canned wine sales are weighted toward  younger consumers — the ones that many observers argue are so reluctant to engage with wine.  Fad or trend? I think cans are a thing although there might be some seasonality that will distort conclusions until we have more data.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Cans have many advantages when it comes to wine. Convenience is often cited and it is true that a can of wine is easy to toss into your backpack or picnic basket if you are headed out for an adventure. But cans are more than the trail mix of wine.

Michelle Williams’s Forbes column “Is the Future of Wine in the Can?”   presents an optimistic case for canned wine, giving special attention to wineries in Oregon and Texas, two regions where wine is booming, that have embraced the can.

Amber LeBeau of the Spitbucket blog argues that the traditional 750 ml wine bottle gets in the way for the growing numbers of consumers both young and old who are concerned about limiting their alcohol consumption or avoiding waste. Too much wine to consume at one time can be too much of a good thing.

Smaller bottles are one solution and cans (most of which hold about two glasses each) and premium boxed wine (where you can dispense as much or little as needed) are good solutions. Maybe that’s a reason why the two fastest-growing wine packaging categories are canned wine and premium box wine.

I appreciate the alcohol issue and the fact that smaller container fit a more sober lifestyle. But my friend  Patrick the Wine Guy has the opposite worry — that consumers won’t realize that 375 ml cans hold two glasses until it is too late and they have drained a couple of them as if they were light beer. Yikes!

There’s an App for That

Cans also have potential advantages in the world of app-based food delivery. I am not sure how many UberEats orders include a 750 ml bottle of wine in areas where that would be legal  (not many, I’m guessing), but I can see the potential for single-serve canned wines here. Simplified wine choices, convenient packaging, drop it in the delivery bag, and out the door.

Significantly, delivery orders are the fastest-growing part of the restaurant business, with some entrepreneurs setting up virtual restaurants and “ghost kitchens” focused just on delivery. Add a can of Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc to that order and you are all set.

There is a lot to like about canned wine once you get over the initial shock of the new package. But that’s nothing new. I’m sure canned beer ruffled some feathers when it first appeared. And, switching products, I’ve read that paperback books were once seen as a threat to serious book publishing.  Change is hard — even when it makes sense (Amber LeBeau’s point).

Canned wine has many advantages, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges to be confronted. Here are three problems to consider.

What Goes In Come Out

When we tell people that we are researching canned wines, they almost always ask, “how is the wine?”   Well, the wine you pour out of the can is pretty much the wine that was put into it. That is one thing that canned wine has in common with bottles and boxes of wine. If lousy wine went in, don’t expect anything better to come out.

A recent study of canned wines versus their bottled twins found no significant difference is consumer evaluation. The cans didn’t change the wines in any way that these consumers could notice.can1

Some wineries such as 14 Hands use the same wine brand for both bottle and can, so they leveraging their bottle brand reputation to promote the canned product. They need to make sure that the wine in the cans is the same as the bottles since an inferior experience would reflect on both types of packages.

Many canned wine brands are priced at the entry level ($4.99 or $5.99 per can or less) and are probably filled with inexpensive bulk wine. Some of these are better than others as you would expect.

Only a couple of the canned wines we have tried so far have been “keepers” that we would drink again.  Most have been under-whelming and over-priced. Since the canning process apparently isn’t the problem, the disappointing wines that we are pouring out of the cans must have been disappointing going in, too.

Our favorite out of about a dozen we have tried so far is the C’est Le Vin Rosé from Washington State producer Barnard Griffin. The label says it is “good Washington wine that happens to be in a can,” which I think sends the right message. It’s the wine that counts. The can is just a delivery system.

No (Canned) Wine Before Its Time?

I always look at the “best by” date when I purchase milk, yogurt, and a few other grocery items. Now I have started checking for dates on cans of wine, too.

Sue and I attended a presentation about canned wine packaging technology earlier in the summer and I was interested to learn about the special lining that is the key to the can’s success. Wine’s alcohol and acid don’t get along very well with aluminum, so a special liner is needed to make the can work.

These linings are typically approved for 6 to 9 months, we were told, depending on the chemical analysis of the wine. The wine might be OK at 12 months or longer, but they are intended for shorter shelf-life situations. You really don’t want cases of canned wine to sit a warehouse for months waiting to be delivered to a retailer.

Many (but not all) of the cans I have seen have a “canned on” date or equivalent code printed on the container and from now on I am going to check that out just as I would a quart of milk and look for wines with less than 6 months or so in the can.

We tried a can of a carbonated orange-flavored white wine spritz and it was a big disappointment. It sounded refreshing  (I was hoping for an Aperol spritz kind of experience), but there was no one home, as Sue said. Not much orange. Not much wine. Plenty of bubbles. Was it the product or was it the fact that it was canned a year prior to our purchase and the can liner had failed in some way?

Confusion Corner

Wine is a famously confusing consumer category, with so many brands and varieties and with such an enormous range of retail prices. Canned wine is not much simpler based on a few retail shelves we’ve studied. There are several can sizes, for example, some sold as singles and others in packs. You’ve got to pay attention to know just how much wine you are buying and its cost per serving.

Some of the wine is labeled by grape variety, but this is less common than with bottled wine. And I don’t think I have seen a vintage date (yet) although, as noted above, the canning date may be more important. This may change if the premium canned wine trend picks up steam.

A lot of the wine is red or white or pink or bubbly. So what’s in the can, Sue asks? What variety or blend of grapes went into the red or white? What should she expect when she pops the top?

At this point, I suppose, the wines are targeting consumers who might find grape blend and vintage date TMI, but that should change if this category doesn’t fall victim to arrested development.

Two Cheers!

Canned wine isn’t going to revolutionize wine, but it seems to have the potential to evolutionize it — to help it evolve in ways that are relevant to today’s consumers. That’s worth a cheer or two in my book.

Why not three cheers? Maybe I am being stingy with my ratings, but it looks like it is still early days for wine in a can and there is a lot of headroom left in all areas including wine quality. I think canned wine has the potential to grow up in ways that will please a broader audience. When that happens, I’ll be the first to add the final cheer.

>>><<<

Thanks to Danny Brager and Genevieve Aronson of Nielsen, Michelle Williams, Amber LeBeau, and Robert Williams for their insights on canned wine. Go to WICresearch.com for updated canned wine market research.

23 responses

  1. Interesting article, Mike.

    One concern for me would be recycling if this trend really takes off. I’m assuming that the extra lining layer will make recycling more difficult/economically impossible? At least glass bottles can be easily recycled.

    • Thanks, Tony. I don’t think the liner is necessarily a recycling problem as interior coatings are common with cans, but perhaps readers will comment on this. The market for the glass bottles that we put in recycle bins is declining, I have read, and more and more glass that we intend to recycle ends up in the landfill anyway. No easy answers.

    • Tony — Glass is not recyclable in a large part of rural America due to the cost of transportation to a glass recycling center. Wine cans (according to Republic Services) are and they will even pay you for them if you have enough to tip their scale.

  2. Mike — Brick and Mortar Winery in Healdsburg CA makes a Rose’, A red and a white blend in a can. It is not cheap but it is really very tasty, even classy. That said, I am old and suffered through canned (Taylors) wine on Delta Airline in the 1980’s (right after they bought Western Airlines) and still can’t bring myself to drink wine out of a can. Given the price difference (per ounce) wine in bottles (750ml) is still a much better buy, and I don’t need to find a PHD Psychologist to help me through the PTSD of my Delta Airlines canned wine experience.

  3. Mike, I’ll start off by saying I am incredibly biased due to the fact that my wife and I have been producing exclusively canned wines since 2016. I appreciate your coverage of the segment, and bringing attention to the aspect of quality in canned wine. All of our wines, are vintage dated, and vineyard specific. There are a number of other wineries that vintage date as well. The fill date, often found on the bottom of the can, is reflective of the fill date, but is not necessarily a reflection of the vintage the wine was produced. There is no requirement for a stated shelf life, and the 6-9 months (our manufacturer says 12) is only the length of time the can manufacturer is willing to cover warranties on the can, and has less to due with stability of either the package or the product. We have found that due to: the lack of UV penetration, no oxygen exchange through a cork, and the use of liquid nitrogen dosing to gain can wall pressure and force out oxygen prior to when the lid is pressed on; wines in can age much slower than in their bottled counterparts. Our first canned wines are still tasting great currently, and we have had no issues with can integrity or quality of the wines. Also, the liner has no effect on recyclability and glass is more difficult to recycle in its entirety, due to breakage. FYI there are a few of us out here, already trying to elevate the quality in the package, in order to bring great wines to the market at lower prices than they would be bottled at. Ideally, wine can be consumed more readily in situations that one might forgo the heavy bottle, glassware, corkscrew, etc. Thanks for the article.

      • The Rosé of Grenache in our new “can” received a double gold medal and 96 points from the 2019 Rosé Experience competition in Heldsburg, CA this summer. Consumers deserve the same high quality wine they can get in glass, in whatever format they choose.

    • Robert, Jet Blue has some very nice Archer Roose cans on board their flights, and we’ve been in discussions with more airlines to add them. Sorry! I have many of those ’80s cans in my collection of over 300. Very comprehensive article.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful piece Mike.

    I have been in the camp of people who think canned wine is more of a fad than a trend. But that has to be defined because I also think canned wine is here to stay, in the same way that we can still find Lancers, Mateus, and Blue Nun, fifty years since the introduction. As a matter of fact, we can still find Bartles and Jaymes sparkling wine coolers, which is now served … in a can.

    One of my more recent revelations has been how the alcohol beverage consumer today doesn’t differentiate between categories of beer wine and spirits. They are alc bev consumers. That means wine producers are more in competition today with bourbon versus Bordeaux.

    Cans fill part of the space of packaging and products that blend between categories with RTD cocktails, traditional beer, wine, and now a range of other products like alcoholized Kombucha and sparkling beverages. That blurring will continue.

    That’s where I, as an old stuffy wine consumer, struggle with wine in a can. All I can see is premium wine put in a substandard container ill-suited for aging. The new consumer just sees alcoholic beverages in a can and often compare price as if they are all the same product.

    So is it a fad? If the definition means that it will at some point go away, then no – it’s not a fad. But if you see it like wine coolers which were a fad, and had a beginning, reached a high point in the late 1980’s but never went away, then it is a fad.

    No matter what we think of wine in a can, today it has upside particularly for a younger consumer. Anything we can do to get them to engage with and love wine is good!

    • I agree that it is too soon to tell what’s going to happen, but glad that we are bringing younger consumers into our tent. I’ve been thinking about how cans played out over on the beer aisle. Cans were everywhere, then imports and crafts showed up in bottles and bottles were a sign of quality. Now I see crafts in cans more and more and that’s become a signature element replacing bottles to a certain extent. What a world! Thanks again for your comment, Rob!

  5. Mike. I have a theory that may explain the attraction. Since most millennials prefer beer, do you want to show up at an outing with a bottle of wine and a glass? Drinking it from a can looks more trendy. That said, almost all of the wines I have tried were too sweet – again, I believe, catering to the younger crowd. One that I liked however was Bonny Doon Vineyard La Bulle Moose, but only the rose (they also make a rouge and a blance. Surprising dry and all have a fizz, but not overly spritzery. Since Randall Grahm pioneered screw caps in the U.S. (Stelvin actually, and they make too types. One for early drinking wines and another for aging wines which is supposed to have the same breathing ability as a cork. As a long-time Bonny Doon fan, I find no lessening of quality with the Stelvin capsule.- perhaps box and canned wines will follow this path.
    Lastly, I learned long ago to check the use by date on box wines (which I am not particularly fond of), They do have a limited shelf life too! Therefore, be sure to only buy from stores you trust to monitor their inventory closely.

  6. I’m not the target market for canned wine, however my only problem with it to date is the juice that goes in. Same with on tap wine. In Australia, it seems to be the less delicious stuff, unfortunately. (Forget boxed wine. It would take a couple of generations to go past ‘goon’ labelling, as much as it would be great to have access to decent wine in a larger format.)
    I like the concept, not that I or many people I know go on picnics or camping, for festivals or events where glass is not allowed or even for backyard bbqs it could be a good solution. Just need to get some great drinking wine in there and it may take off, even faster.

  7. Mike , why does the wine industry charge so much more for a split? If you are single or widowed or just want a glass or two any decent wine is priced just lower that a full bottle. I end up just having a beer or a mixed drink. The can for me has a perceived quality issue and I suspect until the industry addresses that it won’t move for wine drinkers.

    • Thanks, Dino. I agree that smaller formats need more attention. When friends ask me about smaller bottles I recommend a DIY approach — decant wine from a 750 ml bottle into smaller bottles that you can fill up and close tight. That minimizes the air exposure and gives you single servings at a more affordable price.

  8. We’re used to buying bottles of wine. A friend introduced us to canned wine. While it’s interesting, we still prefer it, traditional. Again as time and technology will tell, our perspective is open to changes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: