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Feds OK common wine, hard cider can sizes for individual sale

Vintners and distillers got a year-end gift from the federal government in more leeway in the sizes of bottles, cans and other beverage containers that can be legally sold individually.

The Tax & Trade Bureau, whose jurisdiction includes wine, spirits, beer, on Tuesday published a final rule in the Federal Register that adds seven new allowable sizes, called standards of fill, including a popular size for wine in cans. The rule, which takes effect immediately, will allow wineries and distilleries to sell these sizes individually, instead of forcing producers to package them together to equal a standard size.

The new fill standards are 200, 250 and 355 milliliters for wine and 700, 720, 900 and 1,800 milliliters for distilled spirits. The addition of the 250-milliliter size is a big deal for the wine business, a change the industry has been seeking for years, according to John Hinman, founding partner of San Francisco-based beverage alcohol law firm Hinman & Charmichael.

“The 250s have always been the really convenient bottle size you can get, but it's not been legal, not until today,” he said.

Previously, allowed wine fill sizes for individual sale were 50, 187, 375, 500 and 750 milliliters; 1, 1.5 and 3 liters; and 1-liter increments above that. There are no federal standards of fill for malt-based fermented drinks such as beer, hard seltzer and flavored malt beverages.

The most common wine bottle size holds 750 milliliters, so the 187- and 375-milliliter sizes equate to quarter and half bottles, respectively. That’s enough for roughly four or five of the typical 5- to 6-ounce glass pours in restaurants and bars.

But holding a little more than a glass but less than two, the 250-milliliter size has been found in market research to be a “Goldilocks” size — enough for a single serving without getting the imbiber too tipsy. With the rising popularity of wine in aluminum cans, vintners have had to consider using the commonly available size options of 355 milliliters used for soda and beer, which has less than half the alcohol per serving, and the 250-milliliter size popularized by energy drinks.

Napa Valley’s JaM Cellars released its Butter chardonnay in cans, called ButterCans, in August 2018 in response to consumer demand and requests from retailers and distributors, according to founder and CEO John Truchard. The four-packs retail for $20, and the cans for $5.

“At the time, we were realistically limited to 187mL or 375mL legal single can sizes, which we felt were either too small or too big,” he wrote to the Business Journal in an email. “The 250mL size was ideal for the easy-to-love nature of ButterCans—about a glass and a half serving, easy to hold and throw in a tote or hamper on the go.”

The four-pack has been popular sellers in convenience and grocery stores, and since they pandemic started, restaurateurs have been buying them for take-out, Truchard said. Following the new ruling, it will be an “easy switch” to single-can tray packs shipped to retailers, and singles will take up less space on refrigerated shelves.

Waitress Trishia Davis moves cases of canned cider at Golden State Cider, at the Barlow, in Sebastopol on Wednesday, November 25, 2020.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Waitress Trishia Davis moves cases of canned cider at Golden State Cider, at the Barlow, in Sebastopol on Wednesday, November 25, 2020. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Makers of hard cider, which is classified with wine in regulations, petitioned the agency for the addition of the 355-milliliter format because of its ubiquity for beer, according to the TTB final rule.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, was among those who recommended the 250- and 355-milliliter sizes, because of their use by vintners in his state.

A 2019 survey by WICresearch.com found that 43% of those surveyed prefer 250-milliliter cans, 36% the 187-milliliter can and 21% the 375-milliliter can. Half the several hundred canned-wine producers the organization tracks use the 250-milliliter format, 8% the 187 and 42% the half-bottle-sized can.

But before the latest regulatory rule, wine producers had to combine the 250-milliliter cans into two- or four-packs that equate to existing standards of fill. The inability to print UPCs on each can led to challenges for retailers and vendors when ringing up cans that had been removed from the packs, Hinman said. The regulatory change will be a plus on the expected return after the coronavirus pandemic of in-person events and concerts, where plastic and aluminum containers are preferred for safety, he said.

With the rise of canned wine, the TTB a few years ago started getting industry input on standards of fill and in July 2019 released a proposed regulatory change that would have removed all but the minimum fill standards. Hinman was among those who championed for the elimination of the standards that date back to the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935, the post-Prohibition set of regulation on the industry intended to prevent overindulgence and consumer confusion.

Opposing the elimination of the standards were trade groups such as Wine Institute and beverage wholesalers. The trade advocates said the standards helped prevent marketplace deception, and the distributors argued that doing away with the standards would cause a proliferation of product items for already crowded store shelves.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

This story has been updated with comments from John Truchard of JaM Cellars.

Correction, Dec. 31, 2020: The website address is WICresearch.com.

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