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Premium North Coast wine moves to cans, boxes

Two new North Coast entrants into the rapidly expanding realm of alternative packaging for premium wine span are a Marin County can-focused startup by two 20-somethings with Silicon Valley marketing savvy and a longtime Mendocino County organic winery launching cans and bags in boxes.

In its first year in business, Novato-based Maker Wine Company earned a 96 score plus best-in-class and double-gold awards from 2020 North Coast Wine Challenge for a 2019 barrel-aged viognier made by Campovida winery in Mendocino County. The competition was put on by The Press Democrat, part of the same ownership as the Business Journal.

The same wine package won the new can category at the Pack Conference design competition in July.

“We entered wines into competitions this summer to combat the can bias and to show that this can be an amazing format for premium wine,” said Sarah Hoffman, 30, co-founder of Maker Wine.

The company produced 55,000 cans in its first year and has sold through nearly all of it in the company’s all-direct-to-consumer model, centered around its Can Club. Maker buys wine from producers, sending out a mobile canner to package it at the winery.

The company produced six wines from five vintners in up-and-coming wine regions such as Clarksburg and better known appellations such as Alexander Valley and Mendocino County.

Cases for shipment are packed with six, 12 or 24 cans. Pricing tracks with what the bottled wine costs: the 250-milliliter cans retail for $7–$14.

“For shipping costs, the same volume in the can weighs half what the same amount of wine in a bottle would,” Hoffman said. That makes included shipping for orders of 12 or more cans easier for the startup to absorb.

Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola was a domestic leader in the canned wine trend with the release of Sofia sparkling wine in cans over a decade ago, but only in the last few years have more U.S. vintners been releasing wines under pull tabs — and filled with higher-quality wine.

“Canned alcoholic beverages have received a lot of attention, and for good reason,” said Danelle Kosmal, vice president of beverage alcohol at Nielsen, in a late August update on the imbibing behaviors of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic stay-at-home orders and restaurant shutdowns, both of which have been relaxed to varying degrees in recent months.

“And as restaurants began to expand on ideas like canned wine gardens, it will be interesting to see if this will further normalize the idea of cans and other alternative packaging for wine and even ready-to-drink cocktails.”

For the beer category Nielsen tracks in food stores and other outlets, sales of brews, flavored malt beverages and ciders in cans account for 64% of the category dollars. Since the impact of COVID-19 started to be felt in the U.S. economy at the beginning of March, the beer can share has been up 25% from the same period last year.

In spirits, cans were nearing triple-digit growth even prior to the virus, up 88% year over year, and that growth accelerated during the pandemic in off-premises sales channels such as stores, up 140% from a year before.

Cans account for only 1.2% of off-premises spirits sales, but that share has nearly doubled during the pandemic.

While canned beer and spirits have seen gains in the pandemic, canned wine has seen slowing growth, Nielsen said. Off-premises sales of canned wine sales in the COVID era were up 62% from a year before, while growth before that was up 71% year over year. Yet the share of canned wine has grown to 1.1% of off-premises wine category sales dollars since March, up from 0.8% before the pandemic.

Fetzer goes for cans and boxes

In its 52nd year in business, Fetzer placed second in the Pack competition’s alternative format package design category for the Bonterra Organic Vineyards nonvintage sauvignon blanc 1.5-liter bag in box, which went on the market early this year. And Bonterra’s canned 2018 sauvignon blanc, part of a foray into those containers a year ago, placed second behind Maker in Pack’s can category.

One goal of coming to market with not only conventional 750-milliliter bottles but also one-third-bottle cans (250 milliliters) and two-bottle-equivalent boxes (1.5 liters) was to attract new consumers to premium organic wine through unconventional packaging, according to Rachel Newman, Fetzer director of marketing.

“We took an intentional deviation from our 750 packaging,” Newman said. “We have a really clean white label for our 750, with all of the different organic critters, the bee and the butterfly and the birds. Whereas we really departed from that for these alternative formats, because we wanted to maximize the real estate that we have on those formats.”

Instead of trying to cram the branding into what would fit on the bottle label, the sides of the four-can case and the box could carry the messaging, she said. Four packs of cans (1 liter total) retail for $20, equivalent to $15 for a standard-sized bottle. The boxes retail for $23, equal to $11.50 a bottle.

Another goal for alternative packaging was to give those who already like the Bonterra brand in the bottle the option of taking it with them on outings.

In addition to canned and boxed sauvignon blanc, Bonterra also has rosé in both formats, Young Red in cans plus chardonnay and a fuller-bodied red blend in boxes.

And to ensure there would be no surprises for brand loyalists when cracking open a can or twisting open the box spout, the winery mostly puts the same wine in those packages as in the bottle, Newman said. One exception is the addition of more carbon dioxide for the canned wines.

“It’s not a spritz, by any means, but it’s got a bit more than the bottle to give it a lift,” she said.

Another difference is the red blend used for the box. And the winery for the moment is sticking with only Young Red for any reds going under a pull tab.

“Red wines haven't really cracked the can category yet,” Newman said.

A challenge with cans, boxes and screw capped bottles is the relatively lack of slow interaction they allow between the environment and the wine as with cork stoppers, so wines put into those packages need to be ready to drink on opening.

“We recommend Young Red be serve chilled in the 750, and we’re recommending that for the new format,” Newman said.

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.

Correction, Oct. 14, 2020: The red blends Bonterra puts in cans and the 1.5-liter box are different.

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