North Coast new canned wines capture consumer attention

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A few years ago while driving in Sonoma County, Gina Schober and her husband, Jake Stover, had a discussion that led to a brainstorm.

They were talking about wine-loving friends who enjoyed hiking, bicycling and boating but did not want to be burdened by heavy bottles of wine and related paraphernalia on their outings. Unfortunately, their friends did not like beer.

Why not, the couple asked themselves, put fine wine in cans?

In 2016, Schober and Stover started Sans Wine Co., dedicated to making good California wine and putting it into convenient, lightweight cans, the sort of containers that would be easy to take to the beach or on a hike.

They were well positioned to take on the challenge. Stover was a vineyard manager who had made wine and had the connections necessary to find desirable vineyards with available grapes. Schober, who works for a wine brokerage, knew how to market and sell wine.

And so, Sans Wine joined the nascent but fast-growing category of canned wines.

While many of the early canned wines were made of unknown grapes from dubious origins, pitched at people who were intimidated by wine culture, Sans’ twist is selling single-vineyard, organically grown varietal wines, made as naturally as possible, expressly for people who love wine.

These wines do not require that wine cellars be configured to store cans for years of aging. They are simply satisfying in exactly the way they ought to be, to take advantage of the container’s benefits — fresh, thirst-quenching and delicious.

“Just because it’s in a can, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be good,” Schober said. “We wanted to put wines that we would want to drink in cans.”

Wine in cans accounted for $70 million in retail sales in the U.S. over the year ending in March, said Danny Brager, a senior vice president of the Nielsen Co., which tracks sales. That’s up from $42 million in the previous year and less than $10 million three years earlier.

“Canned wines continue to grow at phenomenal levels, even accelerating into the most current periods,” Brager said. “At the same time, they still represent a relatively small proportion of wines, with just a 0.4% share.”

Cans have advantages over bottles. They are portable and lightweight, and can be used where glass is not appropriate: at pools, beaches, rock concerts and sporting events, and on the sort of backpacking trips that inspired the Sans Wine founders.

They are kinder to the environment than glass: easier to recycle, lighter to ship and requiring fewer packing materials.

Sans Wine is intended for wine geeks, the people who care that the wines are fermented with indigenous yeast rather than inoculated with commercial yeast, and that they are stabilized with minimum, if any, sulfur dioxide, which is nearly universally used in the wine world. I was able to try samples of the six wines Sans made from the 2017 vintage.

My favorites included McGill Vineyard riesling from 60-year-old vines in Rutherford in Napa Valley, which was dry, resonant and lip-smacking, and Carbonic Carignan from Mendocino County, produced using the carbonic-maceration method, common in Beaujolais and with numerous natural wines. It was fresh, floral, bright and lightly tannic.

The riesling and the carignan are both priced at $15, while the $25 for a can of 2017 Napa cabernet — floral, fruity and easygoing — might cause double takes.

Stover justified it in the context of Napa Valley. “For single-vineyard, organic Napa cab, you’re looking at $100 on the shelf,” he said. “We’re offering a great value, considering.”

At La Calenda in Yountville, a taqueria opened in January by chef Thomas Keller, the wine list includes a half-dozen 375-milliliter cans in lieu of half-bottles. When served, the cans are placed on the table next to a stemless glass, which the restaurant uses for all its wines.

“Guests can decide for themselves whether to pour it or drink it out of the can,” said Eric Jefferson, the general manager.

One of the cans on the list is La Bulle-Moose Rousse 2017, from Bonny Doon Vineyard, a pleasantly fruity, energetic sparkling red made mostly of California grenache with some syrah. Bonny Doon also made a sparkling white and a sparkling white in 2017, but is pausing to reassess its plans for canned wines, said Randall Grahm, its proprietor.

“When I had the idea, nobody else was doing it,” he said. “Nothing was in the field, then suddenly, like a Western movie, they’re on all the ridges, hundreds with the same idea at the same time.”

Eric Asimov writes about wine for the New York Times.

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