About a year ago Union Wine Co. decided it needed to do a little rebranding. Ever since the Oregon-based company opened in 2005, it had embraced an unfussy approach to imbibing, but the company realized its message to consumers could be clearer. During a particularly electric brainstorming session earlier this year, it landed on a slogan, "pinkies down," and a brave new method of delivery: wine in a can.
Ryan Harms, the owner of Union Wine Co., is a firm believer in the saying "it takes a lot of good beer to make good wine." He likes the way a beer can feels in your hand and its portability, but he didn't seriously think about canning wine until that rebranding meeting in June. He and his team talked about wanting their products to be accessible, both in the approachability of the varietals' flavors and the ease with which one could grab a drink. They wanted to see their wines included on a backcountry skiing trip or packed for an exploration of Mount Hood. All of a sudden, the can seemed like a viable wine-delivery option.
But the company also had a difficult set of parameters to work within. Wine production is regulated, and wine can only be sold in certain size containers. At the same time, Harms felt very strongly about keeping it in a can that looked and felt like a beer can. That size, he thought, just felt so much more satisfying in the hand than the skinny cans in the energy drink world, which he didn't have any emotional connection to. But the average 12-ounce beer can holds just under an amount that can be put on store shelves. If Union wants a beer can, those cans will actually have to hold 375 milliliters, or 12.68 ounces.
Union Wine was also up against a problem of the wine itself, which often likes special treatment before being consumed. Some wines should be decanted to introduce more surface area to the air. Others are only at their best in a glass of a certain shape or at a pre-determined age.
Harms is half businessman and half winemaker, and he didn't want the business idea to come at the expense of his craft. But he was also really tied to the everyday can. So he tailored the wine to suit the can instead of the other way around, discounting any varietal that wouldn't do well there. "The types of wine in cans don't need to be decanted or to age for five years to be accessible," says Harms. "That would be a real disservice to put products like that in a can." Wines that do better: "wines from the fresh and fruit-driven world, whether that's white or red."Because it doesn't have a lot of tannins, the company's Oregon pinot noir fit the bill. For whites, it went with a pinot gris, which has a higher acid level, and is also fruit-driven. For these blends—and the newer-to-wine clientele Union Wine is trying to reach—the can is a fine delivery system, says Harms.
During Portland's Feast Food and Wine festival in September, Union Wine brought out some wine-in-a-can for consumer testing. And apart from some concerns from connoisseurs that canned wine might be tinny (something Union Wine had not previously thought about), everyday taste-testers were pretty pleased.
But those cans were average beer size, and to get the product into stores, Union Wine has to make its cans a wee bit taller, which it's working on with an Oregon-based manufacturer, to keep costs low. Harms hopes that the little extra height won't feel much different to consumers.
Harms and his team are also considering adding a lining to the can, which is common in other fruit juice and wine-in-can operations. But before they do, Harms wants to be absolutely sure that it would be a net positive for the wine.
While they figure out the last few details, Harms is taking solace in a comment he overheard at the Feast festival. When a woman in her 70s was offered wine in a can or in a bottle, she chose the can: "I have to have this," she said. "It would be perfect for the golf course."
Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer and editor. She's written for Wired, Afar, O, the Oprah Magazine, Gizmodo, and others. Out in the wild she enjoys magazines, urban night hikes, games (both board & video), fiction, and facts.