To be sure, this impressive increase is from an incredibly small base: Wine in cans account for only about 0.2 percent of wine sold in the United States. But a new survey of consumers and producers suggests the can format resonates with wine drinkers because of its convenience, affordability and sustainability.
“Wine in a can is not a fad,” says Robert Williams Jr., assistant professor of marketing at the Sigmund Weis School of Business at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. “It represents a significant new wine category that is finding a permanent, positive place in the overall wine market.”
Over the past two years, Williams, along with colleagues Helena Williams and Matthew Bauman from Texas Tech University, have surveyed consumers and winemakers about their attitudes toward wine in cans. Williams noted that wine was first canned in 1936, but quality suffered because the technology was inconsistent. Better packaging developed over the past 12 years or so has allowed the format to grow in use and popularity. And the survey, of nearly 1,000 respondents ages 21 to 88, with an average age of 34, suggests that cans are allowing winemakers to reach new audiences, rather than eating away at existing sales of wine by the bottle.
Williams and his team have compiled a database of more than 450 wine-in-a-can offerings from 130 wineries around the world. The most popular sizes are 250 milliliters (49 percent), followed by 375 milliliters and 187 milliliters. These sizes, compared with a standard 750-milliliter bottle, are part of the format’s attraction. They allow portion control, for one thing, without the drinker having to deal with leftover wine.
Cans also allow wine to go where no wine has gone before, at least without some inconvenience. Picnic areas, parks and concert venues that ban glass bottles, for example, or boats, where glass is discouraged (and alcoholic beverages may be frowned upon, but disguised in cans). “Or hiking, where it’s not prudent to carry a full bottle, plus glasses, and then carry the empty bottle back,” Williams says. (I’m rather sedentary by nature, but if you’re hiking, shouldn’t you be drinking water?) “One winemaker we surveyed started putting wine in cans after a bad experience where lack of a corkscrew ruined his romantic picnic.” (Ahem, screw caps?)
Snark aside, Williams’s research is interesting because it gives insight into generational shifts in wine consumption. Millennials are receptive to cans because they can buy individual servings — great for singles — but also because of the environmental aspect. Aluminum cans are 100 percent recyclable, unlike bottles (with their labels, foils, corks and even screw-cap liners), boxes or other wine formats. “Millennials, especially, are passionate about sustainability, so they rank this high,” Williams says.
There are also savings for winemakers — cans are lighter, easier to stack and to ship, and when they topple over, they don’t shatter.
But it’s not an easy decision for wineries to add cans to their lineup. “We had several moments of apprehension when we first considered introducing canned wines,” says Drew Baker, of family-owned Old Westminster Winery in Maryland. Old Westminster was the first winery in the Mid-Atlantic to offer wine in cans late last year, but the Bakers were worried about how cans might affect market perception of their brand.
“We came to the conclusion the market was ready for serious wine in a can, and so were we,” Baker says. “Everything we do focuses on making the best wines we can and challenging the status quo.” He also cited cost and sustainability as factors. “Cans are less expensive, much lighter to transport, and easier [for processors] to recycle than traditional glass, cork and foil.”
And cans may not be just for cheap wine. Williams pointed me to Sans wine, which markets a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon (from “Soda Pop Vineyard,” no less) for $25 for a 375-milliliter can, the equivalent of half a standard bottle. Wine Enthusiast magazine gave it 90 points out of 100. If we’re willing to pay more by the glass at restaurants for a high-quality wine, why not in cans that we can enjoy at home, on picnics, hikes or at tailgate parties?
Convenient packaging is fine, but as I’ve said before, don’t drink it from the can and expect it to taste like something special. It may defeat the purpose of that easy portability, but the wine will taste a lot better if you pour it into a glass.
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